Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The News of the World crisis highlights Cameron's flaws

New post, also on LabourList.


Around the time of the financial meltdown three years ago, a snappy little phrase imported from America found its way into common political parlance in Britain: "Never let a good crisis go to waste", it was said. The scandal that has engulfed News International and the Metropolitan Police may not be on par with the financial crisis, but it is a crisis nonetheless: a crisis of the media, but also a crisis of public trust and standards. And David Cameron is not having a good crisis.

At almost every turn since the Guardian's initial revelations a week ago, Cameron has been playing catch up on this debacle. At Prime Minister's Questions, he complacently thought just announcing an inquiry was enough - failure to be stronger on Brooks, on Coulson and on BSkyB put him on the wrong side of the story, and he has remained there ever since. To have the Six O'Clock news, at the height of the revelations, lead with the Prime Minister's face next to Coulson and Brookes was disastrous, and yet all that followed from him were excuses and equivocations.

For someone with supposedly such a well tuned political antenna to not better - and sooner - link it up to a wider failure of press standards, ownership and regulation was painfully flat footed. It's no surprise that Cameron's attempt at robust talk since rings extremely hollow. Despite the slow drip of new developments over the last year, Cameron has failed to see the bigger picture.

As a result, for the first time, mud is starting to stick to the man once dubbed 'Teflon Dave', as awkward press conferences and the polling since Wednesday has shown. And once PMs start to out of touch, they are in real trouble.

But it's not the first time Cameron has failed to grasp the wider significance of events, or been blown this way and that in the face of a major crisis. In the wake of the credit crunch he and Osborne opposed both the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the UK's fiscal stimulus; out of step with the public every bit of the way and unaware of the gravity of what was unfolding, they were left merely commenting on events as Lehman collapsed.

What that spoke to and what the last week has once again served to highlight, is that at heart Cameron is a fundamentally shallow politician. Never without a copy of Blair's memoirs close to hand, his instincts have been formed from a superficial analysis of the last 15 years of political orthodoxy - stick to a fixed centre ground, don't rattle the cages of the rich and powerful, keep the tabloids onside at all cost. Leaders with a deeper understanding of political history would have sensed last week that the plates had shifted - but Cameron didn't, and the ground opened up beneath him

Ed Miliband may not be as slick, but he is a more substantial intellect. For all his faults, he was aware enough to know that the rules of the game had changed, and that he had an opportunity to shape new ones. He recognised that the sheer extent of public revulsion meant an endorsement from News International would never again carry the weight it once did. All the while Cameron was trying to prop up the old media settlement long after circumstance had permitted, vainly continuing triangulate in a belief he could please both Murdoch and the public.

As David Miliband once wrote (ironically given his own fate eventually owed to something similar): "[Cameron] may be likable and sometimes hard to disagree with, but he is empty. He is a politician of the status quo...not change."

Acknowledging it properly would mean appreciating that Cameron is most effectively understood and depicted not as an opportunist or radical per se (Osborne was always the more unashamedly Thatcherite), but weak and out of touch, visionless, chasing public opinion not leading it - a mere projection of his and his party's vested interests.

More immediately, a large majority of voters - of all parties - think Murdoch's BSkyB bid should be derailed. For Cameron to continue to have a tin ear to this shows potentially lethal distance between him and the British public on a question which is ultimately one of values around fair play and unaccountable power. It's the same story in other areas of government - he seems increasingly wrong footed for instance by the lack of appetite for 'choice' or 'people power' as an end in itself in the NHS, or the scale of revulsion at bankers bonuses.

We live in tumultuous times - it's not 1996 or 2006 anymore, but at times Cameron seems stuck there. Britain is not about to be convulsed in revolution, but the News of the World scandal will not be the last time in this parliament that old institutions and old certainties (political and economic) are thrown into disarray and the Prime Minister is called upon to think about things in fresh ways. In failing to keep up, Cameron runs the risk of being trampled underfoot.

With his confident swagger and New Labour playbook, he may occasionally convince us he is born to rule - and he remains a very able politician. But the last week has given us a flash of Cameron's vulnerabilities and weaknesses as a leader - he is, you could say, a print politician in a digital age.