Whip’s Notebook: Cameron is now more focused on party management than running the country

by Jon Ashworth

Two weeks ago PMQs served as a reminder of what could have been for a generation of Tory MPs. With Cameron and Clegg both away it fell to William Hague, foreign secretary and also first secretary of state to bat for the government. And what a joy he was to watch. Of course I don’t agree with his answers, but his delivery was assured, witty, measured and a total contrast to the increasingly irritable, bad tempered, stroppy performance we’re now used to from the prime minister.

So far the conventional wisdom on PMQs has been that Cameron is a class act on whom its difficult to land a glove. But despite Cameron’s relative strengths compared to others on the Tory benches, its strikes me as increasingly obvious that the conventional wisdom on PMQs is wrong.

In contrast to Cameron, Ed Miliband focuses on fundamentals at PMQs whether that’s the economy, the squeeze in living standards or the crisis in confidence in the political system exemplified by a prime minister on the run who refuses to report a cabinet minister to the independent advisor on the ministerial code.

Just in the last week, Cameron dithered on whether to hold an inquiry on the Libor scandal before proposing his inadequate, sticking plaster solution of a joint parliamentary committee in response to sustained pressure from Ed Miliband.

By focusing on these big issues, people are again starting to take a look at Labour though I don’t think anyone in the parliamentary Labour party is in any doubt about how much further we need to travel. However the performance of the government is starting reinforce doubts about the Tories and the competence of David Cameron.

The economic policy of the government isn’t working with growth downgraded and borrowing up. Living standards are dropping and youth unemployment stubbornly high. It’s hurting but not working.

The chancellor’s reputation has taken a battering once again with another poorly executed u-turn sending out a badly briefed junior minster to be savaged in the TV studios while he dined with Tory MPs. Osborne has, so far, had a huge following among Tory MPs with lieutenants placed in number 10, CCHQ, key departments and the Tory whips office but his unfair omnishambles of a budget revealed the flaws in his approach to politics. The No 10 political office would be wise to clip the wings of the chancellor in any upcoming reshuffle though I doubt Cameron would have the bottle.

No 10 is said to be ineffective with no political direction and lack of grip. And the deputy prime minister has got his way in publishing a bill on House of Lords reform,  set to have its second reading next week and to dominate the Commons for weeks ahead.

The prime minister’s response to all this? Simply panic. His troops aren’t happy which is why Westminster has felt like feeding time at London Zoo with the amount of Tory red meat thrown at his backbenchers in recent days, from O-levels to more cuts to social security, and the showing of a bit of ankle on an EU referendum.

But is it enough? The Tory whips have a real problem on their hands over the upcoming Lords reform battle. It’s striking that so many of the discordant voices such as Conor Burns, Jessie Norman, Penny Mordaunt, Angie Bray are all party loyalists who ought, in other circumstances, to be hoping for promotion in any reshuffle. Not the usual subjects by any stretch. And there are more who haven’t yet gone public.

So Lords reform is shaping up to be another shambles for Cameron. But unlike on AV he has to deliver for Clegg for the sake of the coalition, which is why all of a sudden Cameron is desperate to reassure backbenchers that’s despite the coalition he’s a real Tory after all.

But he’s in a bind, caught between needing to appease the Lib Dems and his own increasingly fractious party. His critics are beginning to smell weakness with Liam Fox on manoeuvres supported by a chorus of backbench Tory celebrating his eurosceptic speech this week. Cameron’s flirtatious pronouncements on an EU referendum have simply revealed his lack of clarity winding his eurosceptic backbenchers up who want firm promises not more teasing.

So because of his own decisions, Cameron is forced to become more focused on party management than anything else. He will now be spending days pleading with his own MPs to vote for Clegg’s proposals. Those rebels might not be able to stand Nick Clegg and his plans for Lords reform yet ironically Clegg has just handed them an opportunity to make big demands of Cameron and this increasingly weak prime minister might just have no choice but to give in.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South and an opposition whip

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One Response to “Whip’s Notebook: Cameron is now more focused on party management than running the country”

  1. swatantra says:

    The fact is criminal charges are likely to be brought and the whole episode wrapped up in sub judice. So the suggestion by the Treasury is a cop out. And having MPs investigating Banking is going to get us nowhere.
    Ed is right about ‘institutional corruption’ in the Banking World and it needs an Enquiry along the lines of McPherson to change the whole culture of Banking.
    But lets have an Enquiry time limited short and sharp, so that it doesn’t drag on and on like Leveson and make us all give up the will to live.

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