John McTernan: Loyalty to Coulson leaves Cameron a lame duck
The Prime Minister may hang on, but he has lost authority not only in the political arena, but also in the public's eyes
DAVID Cameron is finished. He may, in the end, survive the phone hacking scandal, but if he does, then he will be in office but not in power. These are strong words. But they go to the heart of the paradox of modern power in a democracy. Even the most overwhelming majority is no longer a mandate, it's a licence. The authority of a government, of a Prime Minister, is renewed, renegotiated, constantly - sometimes weekly, often monthly. Or, as Cameron has discovered to his cost, rarely - but devastatingly - on a daily basis.
The line from Conservative back-benchers is interesting. They say their leader has been "behind the curve" and concede that Labour leader Ed Miliband has been "making the weather". All true, but missing the point massively. In Washington, they have a phrase for a scandal that dominates the political classes but is ignored by voters, they call it a "Beltway blood-letting". The phrase means no-one cares outside the Beltway - DC's own M25.
The truly corrosive political scandals are those that enter the bloodstream of public conversation. This is what has happened with the News of the World phone hacking scandal. It has in social media terms "gone viral", it is a talking point across the country.
Cameron's problem is not playing catch-up with Miliband. His problem is that he's playing catch-up with the public - and failing. The proof? Just follow the public chatter. What are cabbies - the fantastic, all-purpose salt of the earth focus group - saying? They're losing their faith in the Prime Minister. So are talk radio hosts and their guests. And the Tory blogosphere.
Earlier this week, I drafted the memo I would write to Cameron if I was currently in No 10 advising him how to get out of the bind. Tory bloggers immediately suggested I should be appointed. Not, of course, a ringing endorsement of me - more a vote of no confidence in the Downing Street set up.
More striking still, the comments following my blog normally peppered with references to "Bliar", "Liebour" and "Iraq" were uniformly anti-Cameron. There's a huge group forming out there who are scunnered with the Prime Minister. And the biggest problem for Cameron is he just doesn't get it.
For the first year of government, the Prime Minister mastered a fantastic turn. When a policy became unpopular he would hang back, wait until his Cabinet minister was unpopular and discredited, and then step in. Calling a press conference he would proclaim: "I have just discovered that the government is about to do something appalling. It must be stopped. And I will do that now." Breathtaking brass neck. Yet from the privatisation of the Forestry Commission to the reform of the NHS, it has worked.Repeated success with this approach has led Cameron to believe that it is a single, transferable tactic. And he has come to believe that a confident delivery can redefine reality. It doesn't. Well, at least not all the time.
The end of the road came in Africa. To be out of the country at this time was a serious failure of judgment. The optics were terrible. Semi-detached.
As one well-informed young man observed to me: "Off selling arms." And so out of touch. Asked about Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister went straight to defence - nothing Andy did in No 10 was wrong or has ever been questioned. Wow. Wrong answer to the wrong question. It's the actual appointment not the work rate - or work content - that's under scrutiny.
Now, Cameron has a really good ear for the public - it's been the key to his success. But he missed a beat here, because he's out of the country. He missed the fact that he is under sustained attack by the Metropolitan Police. I'm guessing that when he was informed about the resignations of Sir Paul Stephenson and John Yates the Prime Minister was relieved. He will have utterly missed the nuance of their statements unless he saw them live - which he won't have, Prime Ministers travelling never do.
But to be frank, outside of a Latin American coup d'etat, I have never seen a clearer declaration of war on an elected government. Why? Because Stephenson and Yates said virtually the same thing: "We did nothing wrong, but there are serious public perceptions of conflicts of interest. We are public servants. Integrity is a core value for us. When we are the subject of such serious accusations, we must resign to protect the integrity of the institution in which we serve."
The point, more powerful for being unspoken, was clear: if we did nothing wrong and resigned what should others do? Or to be clear: the cops employ a former deputy editor of the News of the World and resign, the Prime Minister employs the formal editor and - Yvette Cooper put it pithily - one law for the police another for the Prime Minister.
That was why Cameron was so wrong to defend Coulson one more time. The central contest in politics is to get the public to think that you are "on their side". What kills you is when the voters decide you are "out of touch". Unfortunately for Cameron his understandable personal loyalty to Coulson has blinded him to political realities. He is defending the indefensible - and he has left Miliband with an open goal today. All he has to say is: "The Prime Minister just doesn't get it."
And this is why Cameron is on the slide. He has not shown that he gets it, but the public is finally getting him. Under Gordon Brown, Labour tried to brand Cameron as a toff. That didn't work because no-one cared where he was from, they got his authority and connection. But authority is often the flip-side of arrogance - and that is where the public is moving, and indeed has perhaps moved decisively.Few ordinary people pay detailed attention to political scandals, however large, but they get a glimpse from time to time. The danger for the politicians in the frame is that the snapshot in time becomes a defining image. For Cameron that is happening right now, and he is hurting.
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