I resisted the many requests from Sunday newspapers to offer crisis comms advice to Number 10 as a combination of granny tax, tax cuts for the rich, pasties, petrol panic and a Tory funding scandal combine to give the government a fairly choppy period.
Partly this was because I remember once spotting Bernard Ingham, Maggie’s press spokesman, popping up on telly and fulminating against me and and all my works, and saying to my kids: ‘If I ever end up like that, put me down.’ Also because I was having a very nice time in Rennes, Brittany, at a rather splendid event organised by Liberation newspaper, in which thousands of people wandered off the streets to join in all manner of political and philosophical debates.
But I always know if a frenzy is nothing more than that, or if it has lasting political significance, by the volume of media bids and the volume of calls from people I used to see and speak to on a regular basis. Like the Tory MP who called me this morning, just to ask if I could believe how badly Number 10 had cocked up since the budget. He said something which echoed the comments of his colleague Nadine Dorries in a recent reasonably favourable profile of David Cameron in the FT magazine. She said the problem with the government was that it was run by two public schoolboys who did not know anyone who had to put things back on the supermarket shelves after looking at the price.
I met Nadine Dorries when she and I appeared on The Big Questions a few weeks ago, and found myself being more impressed by her than I had expected to be, based on something of a caricature which had emerged since she was elected. Of all the comments in the FT piece, hers struck me as the most politically potent, which is why I cut it out.
What we have seen in recent days has borne her out. It was echoed by one of my callers this morning. He said Cameron and George Osborne rely on a very narrow gene pool, both politically and in class terms, because they really do think they are superior. Whenever anyone goes on about their background, they get accused of waging class war. But just as Nadine Dorries saw the relevance of their background to the looming ‘out of touch’ problem, so did my Tory caller. ‘They do not have, and do not know, elderly parents who have to worry about the price of everything. They don’t know middle class people for whom child benefit really makes a difference. They are not rooted in the world that most of our constituents live in.’
If the background and the upbringing risks breeding arrogance, then touches of that are being shown in their mishandling of events. Osborne was sneaky in his Budget presentation, but thought he would get away with it. Granny tax, then pasties put paid to that. Watch out too for a backlash on changes to charitable and philanthropic giving. Then Cameron thought he could get away with saying he was coming clean on funding when actually he wasn’t. Rule 1 when dealing with a big Sunday paper expose – always be on guard for what they have kept back for Week 2. I said last Monday he should set out the full story, and defend what he thought was right, and deal with what he thought was wrong. He didn’t do that. He just gave the impression he was.
Cameron’s biggest strength so far has been looking and sounding like a PM, but I have said before unless there is substance, values and a real sense of strategy to what he does, that will not be enough. There is a sense developing that he and his team are prone to panic under pressure. He needs to stop that becoming a trend. He also needs to get a grip of ministers who drop the ball as easily as they have over petrol. Jerry cans indeed. Extraordinary.
I used to keep a file of cuttings in which various newspapers and magazines announced ‘the end of the honeymoon’ for TB. We had been in years before finally they stopped. I imagine the Sunday papers have a few such references today.
There is another factor at play here, and that is the PM’s decision to establish the Leveson Inquiry. It was the right thing to do, and it would have been scandalous had he not done so. But he did so not out of burning principle or worries about the press culture. He did so become a combination of Andy Coulson, closeness to News International and Millie Dowler made it impossible not to. In some ways, the press has been on its best behaviour as the inquiry goes on, hoping that the judge and the politicians will buy the line that the very existence of the inquiry has led to a change of culture. This is of course entirely tactical, in that if they get away with another round in the last chance saloon, they will then revert to type.
Indeed, the way some are turning the heat on Cameron suggests that on this one, they can’t resist their continuation as instruments of unaccountable political power. Revenge a dish best served hot. And amid all that, particlarly relevant is the continuing love-in between Rupert Murdoch and Alex Salmond. I don’t know if the Leveson team keeps an eye on the Scottish papers. But as we near the point when past and current leaders are likely to be summoned, I do hope that Salmond is among them, so that he can explain this touching relationship, and that Murdoch is asked why he has suddenly become a proponent of breaking up the UK.