Cameron Must Breathe New Life into the Coalition ; the Prime Minister Needs to Review His Policies and Reshuffle the Ministers Charged with Delivering Them

By Birrell, Ian | The Evening Standard (London, England), July 25, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Cameron Must Breathe New Life into the Coalition ; the Prime Minister Needs to Review His Policies and Reshuffle the Ministers Charged with Delivering Them


Birrell, Ian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


WE HAD lost our virginity on scandal," wrote Tony Blair, reflecting on the furore over Bernie Ecclestone's million-pound gift to the Labour Party a few months after taking office. Scandal, he said, was "an absolute nightmare in government", stealing up unawares and consuming vast time and effort while facts were established, lines worked out and positions staked.

He was candid about how hard it was to react while a raging storm buffeted the government. "Your senses and decision-making are upended, tossed about on the waves of some fresh 'revelation' until you fear that you will never get to calmer waters."

Now David Cameron has lost his virginity on scandal. As he prepares to head off with his family on holiday next week, his Government battered and bruised by the turmoil over links to News International, he will be hoping for less choppy waters ahead.

The Prime Minister can be pleased with how he salvaged a situation that was spiralling out of control. Once again, he proved himself the Harry Houdini of British politics, a charismatic showman able to shake off shackles threatening him with doom. As bookmakers slashed the odds of survival, his performance last week in the Commons, then to his own backbenchers, was a timely reminder of his unique political skills.

While Mr Cameron found his voice on the scandal, there were few echoes from his Cabinet colleagues. Where was the praetorian guard defending the Government, the cadre of loyalists who could be depended upon to step forward and brave the fire in a time of crisis? Blair, of course, had people such as Jack Straw, John Reid, David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Alan Milburn, who were never afraid to throw themselves on a microphone. But there is a dearth of confident and combative performers in the Coalition's upper ranks, a problem that needs to be addressed rapidly. Instead, it was left to backbenchers to put the Government case when the going got tough.

There are several reasons for this. First, the wipeout in 1997 left a diminished talent pool at the top of the Conservative Party. The effects continue to be felt today. Then there is the professionalisation of politics, with MPs emerging from think-tanks and research posts rather than a broader spectrum of jobs, creating a more callow political class.

Additionally, two of the Coalition's most adept performers were hors de combat -- Michael Gove's wife works at The Times, silencing the Government's most eloquent minister, while George Osborne was the person who suggested hiring Andy Coulson. This has not stopped some grumbling about the Chancellor's "Macavity tendencies" at No 10, however.

But what is increasingly evident is how this Government has seen so many reputations shredded over its first 14 months in office, while so few have been enhanced. This is unusual. It is also hampering its ability to get across its message.

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