So, why should Tories worry about Cameron, a man who, after all, largely made them electable and put them into government? I’ll explain.
Grassroots Tories themselves would undoubtedly say that he’s not right-wing enough (imagine that!) If you asked Labourites, they would probably tell you that he is economically wrong-headed and will probably keep Britain in recession longer than is necessary (true); that he is destroying the NHS (rather than merely making it inefficient and unworkable), and so on.
But let’s suppose, for a moment, we were to take the policy debate out of it. Disparate strands of Labour thinking might then converge on a more important, and ultimately much more damaging, criticism: that he is leading a government which is showing signs of rank incompetence.
And, in recent days, what Cameron has suddenly achieved is worse than that: he has embarked on a course which is harming his own name and that of his party in a non-partisan sense. Now, no party is ever free from scandal, a fact of political life. Let he who is without sin, and so on. But the office of the Prime Minister is one which tends, for the overall good of the country, towards being mercifully above the fray: you may believe that they get things wrong, but it’s relatively unusual to find a situation where one sees real wrongdoing and chooses to gloss over it. It’s bad politics, for a start, because in the end these such things will inevitably come back to bite them.
Even in the darkest days of the Tory “sleaze” phase of the 1990s, while he might be accused of weakness or his government of incompetence, no-one seriously thought badly of John Major in terms of his own integrity, because he was clearly a decent man dealing with colleagues (Archer, Aitken or Hamilton) who were clearly not. Thatcher, likewise, had many shortcomings, but was rarely seen by the public as someone who took the path of least resistance when it came to making difficult decisions about people. We might not like that, but it’s true.
Last Thursday, Cameron confirmed to the world that he stood by Jeremy Hunt, by refusing to allow an investigation as to whether or not he broke the ministerial code. He even told Andrew Marr – with a straight face – that Hunt acted “wisely and fairly”. A thought, Mr Cameron: people rightly get cross when you take them for fools,
Let us leave on one side the Kafkaesque way that the law works, in that the person who gets to make this choice on the ministerial code is the Prime, er, Minister. Until yesterday there had been, extraordinarily, not a single referral to Sir Alex Allan over the ministerial code since he took the role, and Hunt was no exception.
It is simply not good enough to suddenly refer Baroness Warsi over some minor infraction of the code instead, as Cameron did yesterday, and hope no-one will notice that the overwhelmingly more important Hunt case was not referred. Cameron has chosen to call out the mouse barely squeaking in the corner, rather than the elephant casually occupying the room.
This is the same Jeremy Hunt, lest we forget, who was on such close terms to a professional lobbyist for one side of the bid he was overseeing, that he referred to him, cringingly, as “Daddy”. It seems unarguable that he was anything other than hopelessly biased in this process, but somehow he remains in office. It is the remaining in office that is the astonishing fact, rather than the embarrassment over what he actually did.
Now I understand that most ordinary people probably don’t give a fig about the Leveson inquiry, or media ownership issues like the BSkyB bid. But for those few who do, it is rather important. And it makes me feel indignant in a way which a partisan difference of opinion over policy would not.
There are three possible reasons for Cameron’s decision, any of which might be true: one is simply that he made a poor decision, the results of which has now mark his leadership as one of expediency over statesmanship. Hunt’s continued presence in the Cabinet will then simply serve as a reminder of the Cameron’s mismanagement of the situation.
The second, which the excellent Tim Carter pointed out to me, is that he might simply have decided to sack Hunt but not yet; it is rarely good politics to sack someone when the Opposition demands it, and for that reason Hunt will be sacked in the summer. I am not yet convinced that this reason makes sense for Cameron, because of the seriousness of the accusation.
There is a third possibility and, though it is probably still unlikely, its mere existence is damaging for the government. It is the most attractive to the conspiracy theorists: either an investigation into Hunt, or his sacking, would reveal things so much more damaging to the government, or even to Cameron personally, that they must be avoided at all costs.
What is disturbing is that, in failing to distance himself from this possibility, Cameron puts himself on a different, less elevated level from prime ministers of all parties going back decades, in that he is prepared to countenance a rather unseemly soft-shoe shuffle rather than remove a man so obviously compromised. Rather than drawing the poison of his minister’s improper relationship with a lobbyist by sacking him, or at least investigating him, and thereby protecting his party and his government. An immediate sacking would have hurt his party’s standing surprisingly little, and would have been the mark of a statesman.
So, at the very least, Cameron is guilty of poor judgement, as he has been guilty of under-preparation and hasty judgement in the past. And, so far, it’s not looking like his overall performance is destining him for much of a prime ministerial epitaph, whenever that moment finally comes. And that’s whatever his party, whatever his politics.
And that is why Tories should be worried about their leader. After two years, he may have established some sort of functioning leadership; but, scratch the surface, and those tougher tests of mettle, of statesmanship, which make a true prime minister, continue to seem wholly beyond him.
This post first published at LabourList