Cameron….losing respect

Bad calls and falling popularity have the Tory grandees worried.

David Cameron is in trouble. You only have to assess the totality of Coalition under-achievement – and take into account his recent self-inflicted problems – to realise that. But this weekend, there is for perhaps the first time serious doubt in the Conservative Party as to whether the Prime Minister is an asset or a liability. And as ever, George Osborne is playing a shrewd hand.

It’s been an awful two months for Cameron. Not only did he look weak and under the Commons cosh over the Newscorp phone hacking scandal, the Left-leaning press remain convinced that there is far more to come out about Hackgate – and his role in it. Now he finds himself fighting a war on three fronts over Britain’s looting crisis – against Labour on the one hand, his Right Wing on the other, and police fury at his decision to import an American riot consultant.

And yesterday, Chancellor George Osborne knowingly made his problems greater by not only advocating a tighter EU fiscal union, but insisting that Britain must decide how it is going to relate to a more federated neighbour. (Hish job too, shurely? – Ed)

Remove the remarkably successful spin element from the account, and David Cameron has presided over a Coalition history that represents an unmitigated catalogue of error, muddle, U-turns, compromise and ineffectiveness. Army cuts highlighted by a foolish Libyan involvement, police cuts made to look insane after a week of rioting, an NHS reform disaster so enormous nobody can remember the objective any more, a deeply unwise speech in Ankara, back-tracking over Welfare reform while pushing hard on totally unfair pension plans, a hopelessly mishandled programme of University fee increases, arrogance over his hiring and firing of Andy Coulson, lack of discretion about his Newscorp relationships, a dilatory lack of interest in the EU’s implosion….and now, a silly tit-for-tat battle with senior police officers over who succeeded and when in relation to riot control.

Suddenly, Cameron is getting a terrible press across a whole range of issues – from his ballooning weight, to the classic PR’s idea of importing US “supercop” Bill Bratton to advise the Government. But all this is about to get much worse on the European front.

The PM is this weekend under increasing pressure to pledge a referendum on UK membership of the EU. But it was Osborne who – without warning – abruptly reversed decades of British foreign policy by backing full fiscal union for the 17-nation eurozone.

Both the Tory Right (and a surprising number of increasingly eurosceptical Labour MPs) believe that Britain will be bullied into changing its regulatory and taxation policies to conform more closely with eurozone directives once fiscal integration gets going. Predictably, Tory rebels are worried about regulation, and the Left is desperate to avoid a monetarist hegemony spreading to Britain – where (as Simon Hughes again made clear yesterday) they believe wealth redistribution is still the way forward. Desperate times make strange bedfellows of us all.

A few Conservative diehards even fear the UK will get bounced into the single currency, but they’re atypical. However, more feel that a UK so isolated from a centralised EU cannot possibly make sense: the logic (and it’s good logic) is “either get out or get stuck in”. The mess created by Cameron and Hague appeals to almost nobody. Quietly, the Chancellor is exploiting this massive flaw in policy….and beginning to take a lead on it.

The Chancellor’s instincts are much nearer to the Tory Right than those of Cameron. His relationship with its leaders is more relaxed than the PM’s: Malcolm Brady for instance, the 1922 Committee Chairman, resigned after David Cameron ditched the commitment to Grammar Schools in 2007. His own view – that the Tory leader isn’t really a Tory at all – is not unusual among 1992 members.

George Osborne is hugely ambitious and plays a long game. He has been very successful in remaining relatively untainted by any of the Coalition’s cock-ups – despite the fact that he enthusiastically recommended Andy Coulson to Cameron, is closer to Newscorp than he cares to admit, and has been pretty ineffectual in dealing with EU pressure to increase British conformity.

During last year’s General Election, he was privately angry that Cameron and his adviser Steve Hilton played softly-softly on the big issues, and on one occasion chose to air his views on the Andrew Marr show – without discussing it beforehand with Cameron. Relations were cool for a week or two, and indeed the Conservative leader did something of a disappearing act for a number of days that seriously worried senior players in the Party. In private, Osborne allies blame the failure to win outright on Cameron and Hilton.

Similarly, the Chancellor is frustrated by the amount of back-tracking on the cuts programme. Some of the simmering tensions at the top in the Government erupted last week when Michael Gove ripped into Harriet Harman on Newsnight for suggesting a relationship between rioting looters and Government closures. Friends of the Education Minister suggest that he knows how easily his vital reforms could be blown off course if the Coalition implodes; and Nick Clegg has already spoken out against removing benefits from looters as ‘knee-jerk’. (It is in fact stupid: they will simply switch from looting to something even worse).

The fundamental problem with the Prime Minister is twofold. First, he makes some mind-bogglingly bad calls – as I’ve posted before, often through talking to the wrong people. But more importantly, he is not built for the era that is approaching. Ultimately, he is not so much a pragmatist as a tactician without a strategy. His latest soundbite – that Britain needs to “put on a fresh face” in the time remaining before the 2012 Olympics – sounds risibly empty given a context of profound socio-economic problems.

The nearest thing he has come to in defining an objective – the Big Society – seems also at one and the same time so dense and vague that it simply doesn’t resonate with anyone. The truth is that the near future of Britain – global slump, EU implosion, police unrest, Union truculence and an Underclass convinced of its special entitlement – will be easier if we have a Winston Churchill at the helm rather than a Stanley Baldwin.

There isn’t anyone even approaching a Churchill waiting in the wings: Boris Johnson sees himself as this sort of leader, but the timing is very bad for him right now….and he has lost a lot of his shine following the London riots. If nothing else, George Osborne probably offers a far higher chance of uniting the Party behind a more focused strategy. Last week, an Ipsos Mori poll showed a massive popularity swing away from the Prime Minister; and I understand from industry sources that his standing has plummeted following the perceived mishandling of the riots and their aftermath.

In discreet private rooms, those at or near the top of the Conservative Party are taking all these factors into account. Sources suggested yesterday that senior Tories remain as ruthless as ever: they have already calculated that Cameron falling as the result of the riots would be infinitely preferable to his demise as a result of yet murkier involvement in the Hackgate scandal.

The next two weeks at most will be telling for David Cameron. If there isn’t an improvement by then, something will happen to force his departure. Nobody is clear about exactly what that might be; but today, the Toff is closer to being ditched than he has ever been.

Related: Cameron ignores good advice

The Big Society is a non-starter