Our reactionary Prime Minister and his Andy Coulson problem

David Cameron has found himself under a barrage of criticism. Having come from a PR background he should be used to dealing with situations of this kind; and indeed he is. A smooth operator both at PMQs and press conferences, with his ability to take the sting out of questions and frame the answers in a context that suits him and with language that suits the people, Cameron shows why he was once thought of as the heir to Blair. But now the News International shit-storm has engulfed him, doubts are beginning to linger about his leadership.

Andy Coulson

With Andy Coulson gone who will David Cameron turn to now? Photograph: Independent

The hacking scandal has claimed many victims with no telling where it might end. It has broken the News Corp. BSkyB bid and cast doubts over the likelihood of James Murdoch succeeding his father. It has led to a string of arrests and resignations across the Met and News International, with more senior figures left feeling the pressure. And it has been judged to have been the making of the previously failing leadership of the Labour leader Ed Miliband. Where Ed Miliband has prospered in grasping the public reaction to the scandal however, Cameron has failed. A few reasons have been mooted as to why this has happened. His close relationships with Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, his loyalty to them, his desire to appease News International, or even that Ed Miliband has been leading the reaction to the scandal. Although there’s probably just as many people who think Hugh Grant has been leading (showing he still can) the reaction. Regardless of who has been setting the pace in reacting to “hackgate”, it cannot be argued that the Prime Minister has been one step behind it.

For a PR man who appears to know what to say and exactly how to say it, this shouldn’t be happening to him. But it has, and it has done for months. Cameron’s first year as Prime Minister will be remembered for a few things, and only time will tell how history looks back on them. The formation of the coalition, the commitment to eradicating the structural deficit over the course of one parliament through budget cuts, and the sound of tyres screeching from abrupt U-turns. It is the latter which should be causing him the most immediate worry.

When making policy announcements, avoiding a public backlash should be second nature to a man with his background, but it seems to be his achilles heel. As a result he has had to react in the face of public opinion to which he seems alienated from. He has repeatedly chosen to U-turn and align himself towards public opinion, where others may have chosen to lead the public towards them. He has therefore sacrificed any logical reasoning he had for taking the steps which caused such outcry in the first place. To need to react to the aftermath of your own policy announcement smacks of incompetence; as Gordon Brown found out when he abolished the 10p tax rate, and David Cameron has become an extremely reactionary Prime Minister. He has effectively been deciding the majority of his policy decisions based on sensationalism and short-term public reaction. Where this leaves his long-term policy strategy remains to be seen, but there is a more immediate underlying threat because of this reactionary persona.

Cameron has so far been able to limit the damage caused by most of his reactionary U-turns through a combination of good spin, a fair press, coalition backing and an inept opposition. As most of these factors are not at play in the hacking scandal situation, he seems to be suffering more. In reality the cracks have always been there, but this time he’s run out of paper. This was bound to happen, and even though those closest to him might tell you the U-turns were because of his laid-back chairman style approach to government, the real reason is he simply hasn’t been able to judge the public reaction to his policies with any foresight. This may be partly due to the fact that most members of the cabinet don’t live the lives of ordinary people and haven’t done so for a long time, if ever, and that makes it difficult for them to see issues through the eyes of ordinary people. The idea that the Tories were out of touch with modern Britain is something Gordon Brown tried to stick on them. Ideally they need someone, close to their operation, to be able to sound out policy before announcements, who sees things through the eyes of ordinary people and is able to skilfully position the party to lead public opinion on matters. To be fair to Cameron and co., they saw this coming, and they did have someone. Only he had to resign. His name was Andy Coulson.

When Coulson was forced to resign in January, Cameron, so detached from reality himself, lost his reality check. Since the departure of Coulson, Cameron has played catch-up on public opinion and performed his biggest U-turns, including on sentencing plans, the proposed forestry sell-offs, the NHS shake up and of course his Royal Wedding suit. He went from knowing what was going to be printed in the papers and shaping public opinion to having to read the papers to find out. So when a situation has unravelled like the one currently surrounding News International has, he has been forced to react, in a now customary way, after he has read the papers and gauged public opinion rather than before.

There’s no avoiding having to react to events. Ideally, everything would be perfectly planned out with no spanners thrown into the works. Unfortunately life doesn’t take the courtesy to work like that. But when addressing public mood on an issue, it is best to react in a way which foresees and deals with the direction of the issue and sets the agenda on it.

Unfortunately a simple U-turn sprinkled with a little spin about how they’ve listened to a public consultation won’t suffice in this situation, but this situation has merely exposed the shortcomings of Cameron. He has misjudged the reaction of the public on many policy issues, but his misjudgement has been exposed to a greater extent on News International. Judgement is one of the most important traits for a politician, let alone a Prime Minister. Ironically, the issue that Cameron is drawing the most criticism from in this scandal is his judgement in bringing Andy Coulson into Downing Street in the first place. The truth is that Cameron needed Coulson. Maybe not specifically him with all of the excess baggage and controversy, but definitely somebody of his ilk. Now he has lost him, his replacement Craig Oliver is just not cutting it. More of a man who knows what looks good on television rather than one who can gauge public reaction and sentiment, Cameron needs the latter as his director of communications. This is the first scandal where a chink in the Cameron armoury has been exposed, but it could easily be seen in a number of other decisions regarding past appointments and policy announcements. If his judgement is repeatedly called into question on other decisions he makes in the future, he’s finished. The public, the press and his party will eventually lose faith in his every move. Cameron needs another Coulson, and fast.


Posted on July 24, 2011, in Coalition Government, Conservative Party, Party Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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