Rumours buzzed around last week that Andy Coulson was about to be charged with something, but in the end it turned out to be The Sun’s defence correspondent who found herself arrested by prior arrangement. (No DSK perp-walk for the Newscorpers, note). But then Hattie Madperson accused David Cameron of “not being entirely straight” with us all about his relationship with the Murdoch acolytes – an accusation on a par with suggesting that Judas just might have had something to do with Christ’s arrest. So once more people thought ‘aye-aye’ the way they do. But in the end, it was a resignation that shocked people.
Steve Hilton is taking a sabbatical – so, not quite a resignation, then. For once, he does have a reasonable excuse: his other half gets paid shedloads to work in the US, and that’s where Steve will be sabbaticalising. But the truth behind the move is that Hilton has become fed up of trying to turn Dave into a Tory.
Many see Hilton’s departure as a disaster, but I can’t say I am among them. His advice during the last Election was not great, and he is not enough of a brawler in the Campbell mode to be truly effective as an adviser. His one truly wise piece of counsel he gave along with almost the entire population of media gulch – stay away from the Murdochs – although to be fair, he did say it long before anyone else did….and he was very rude to our dear Chancellor for effecting the introduction to Coulson – a man he loathed, and the feeling was mutual.
But anyway, Steve’s gone. So, it is argued, with the demise of Coulson and the imminent departure of Hilton, what is the Prime Minister to do as a Young Etonian out of touch with both young voters and old backbenchers? Is sharing horses with both the police and Rebekah Brooks a sign of spectacular overhead scissor-kick own-goals to come? I’m not so sure. Perhaps this is a chance – no, make that the last chance – for Dave to start being himself.
There is no question, for example, that Mr Cameron’s attempts to seem like one of us are dated, diaphanous, and generally risible. He is the kind of chap likely to get onto a London bus and say to the driver, “10 Downing Street please”. He is a toff and, when it comes to our everyday problems, not entirely in touch. But most of the time the voters would be happy with that so long as he seemed to have common sense and a genuinely tough way with Johnny Foreigner, gobby minorities, and the Trades Union movement.
The degree to which the electorate must ‘indentify’ with its leaders is massively overplayed: media and political advisors have over-egged this need for years because, like those who survey potential house purchases, they feel duty-bound to find something that needs to be corrected. Andy Coulson was alleged to have shown David Cameron how to be a bit Essex, but I don’t think Coulson’s background had anything at all to do with the success of their relationship: it was more about ethics than Essex. For me, Coulson doesn’t have any: he’s a devious, unprinicipled, swivel-eyed little runt in the classic Newscorp mould: he was good at was knowing what would ‘play well’, because he’d been plucking at the nation’s baser instincts for years as a tabloid editor.
Going forward – as they say in the Newscorp resignation press releases – the last thing the PM needs to be any more is a man obsessed by image-makers. He is going to find this hard, because it is actually the only trade he ever undertook. But he is capable of listening to his own head: if nothing else, this is demonstrated by the mule-like stubbornness with which he ignores a lot of advice with a touch of sagesse to it. And occasionally, his head is right. Also, conferring with his head won’t take up much of Dave’s time, because there’s not much in it.
Having Andy Coulson around didn’t win Cameron the General Election, and ultimately wound up dropping him into a cess-pit, the smell from which may never entirely dissipate. Whereas Alistair Campbell was good at suggesting that nothing was something, Coulson spent most of his time persuading people that something was nothing. For both himself and the Prime Minister, he must surely be judged an abysmal failure in that endeavour.
Steve Hilton is undoubtedly, at heart and in his head, a Tory. What most observers get wrong, however, is to assume he has a certain affinity with backbenchers and the Party grass roots. The truth is that the vast majority of both think Hilton to be a cerebral prat: the sort of political version of a management consultant who sounds plausible, but never actually offers a solution. (This was pretty much Coulson’s view too). David Cameron doesn’t need another Steve Hilton to get his rebels onside, he needs somebody who could be what Willie Whitelaw was for Margaret Thatcher. Whitelaw was a human face with a smile, rather than a handbag heading for the temples. That’s not really what Cameron needs, but the parallel is a sound one: in his case, the requirement is for somebody both Tory and Tough – whom the Old Rumblers respect – being seen to be close to him.
Certainly, the Prime Minister needs to develop his appeal to the rainbow audience inside and outside his Party, because the next three years will be like none other in British history.
For my money, the problem in the Tory Party is that quite a few of both the old boys and the young turks think the movement has been hijacked by some crypto-socialists called Camerlot, and a few wooly LibDems with too much influence. This is a mess derived largely from the counsel of ‘advisers’ to David Cameron before and during the 2010 General Election. In the media, the situation is even worse: the Telegraph’s owners fear the good ship Coalition, and take every opportunity to try and torpedo it. All the other titles are either tepid in their support or openly hostile, and the Guardian hates everyone who isn’t a backbench Labour MP fighting to be a torchholder for Justice. Huge swathes of the CBI are wet about the Chancellor’s austerity strategy, and those working in the public services (especially health) think the entire Cabinet to be incompetent and untrustworthy. With one or two exceptions, I’m inclined to agree with them.
In short, as I first observed in late-Autumn 2010, the Cameron Coalition is either suspected or disliked by almost everyone, and retains what support it has purely because the alternative is (for the majority) too ridiculous to even contemplate. Unfortunately, the majority is split three ways between the Conservatives, UKIP and the LibDems. The latter two may seem unimportant, but in a country as divided as ours is in 2012, such a split is potentially disastrous: the 40% directly or indirectly with a stake in more Labour Government remain pretty solid in their support for the Ed Miller Band, even if the bloke in charge is a dork, his deputy comes across like Juan Franco, the power-broker is a radical feminist, and beneath them there are at least two factions having a pillow fight.
In that context, Dave will not be well-served by plonkers with neatly-arranged pencil cases, or BBC lightweights drivelling on about consensus and acceptability. My own view is that the medium-term chances of Mr Cameron’s survival remain slight, and more of the same will simply seal that. But if he appoints an admired MP from the Right with communication skills – and begins himself to throw more caution to the winds – there is just a chance a Cameron-led Conservative Party could win through.
I think he’ll dismiss that as a political impossibility (it would mean scrapping Camerlot itself for one thing) and so things will go another way. As regulars here know only too well, my own preference is for the old Party loyalties to collapse in favour of an organisation the voters will respect. But things will have to get much worse before that happens. Meanwhile, the Old Labour ideas are smouldering back into life across the EU, with the Fuhrerine and Dr Strangelove in Berlin fanning them into life for all they’re worth. Right now, the future is looking very confrontational.