‘Hackgate’ is David Cameron’s first real crisis of government. The absence of Tories coming out and defending Cameron is suggestive about the Prime Minister’s popularity within his own party. If he’s going to successfully deal with the next disaster to come his way, he needs to schmooze with his backbenchers. And get rid of Baroness Warsi, writes A.P. Schrader.
Like many, I have been totally absorbed by ‘Hackgate’, though frankly one does rather begin to tire of the whole tedious imbroglio and the somewhat overblown manner in which it was beginning to eclipse other vitally important issues (most notably the crisis in the Eurozone). It is just sad that it has taken a terrorist attack in Norway and the death of a popular singer to finally knock it off the top stories. I am, nevertheless, going to add to the tedium of l’affaire de Murdoch by taking a moment to ask what all this means for David Cameron.
It can hardly be denied that, almost from the outset, our Prime Minister was pretty effectively on the back foot. Ed Miliband stole an early head start by coming out so strongly in favour of a judge-led inquiry and hit the airwaves with his customary air of pained saintliness, bemoaning the influence of Rupert Murdoch and condemning the apparent skullduggery of News International (which is a rather impressive feat of theatrics, given that Mr Miliband was quite happily quaffing the Murdochs’ champagne a few weeks previous).
The PM tried to keep pace with the Leader of the Opposition but, naturally, leaders of the Opposition are always capable of greater agility than prime ministers, who are restrained by the probity of their office. Once Andy Coulson got sucked back into the story, the PM must have known he would have a very rough ride on his hands indeed. Of course, prime ministers, unlike leaders of the Opposition, can actually do things and Mr Cameron made a spirited attempt to regain the initiative at PMQs shortly thereafter when he announced the appointment of Lord Justice Leveson and outlined details of the forthcoming public inquiry.
Along with Mr Miliband, the Labour Party at large have, as you might expect, behaved in the most shockingly opportunistic way – at least, it would be shocking were it not so entirely predictable. Perhaps the most infamous and brazen example was Gordon Brown’s bombastic attempts – in a rare appearance on the floor of the Commons chamber – to re-write his own history, as though he had not been sucking up to the Murdochs and News Corps, just as Tony Blair did before him, until The Sun switched their support to the Tories.
It was a bravura performance from the former Prime Minister, who gave perhaps the most deluded, self-serving and one-sided version of events I think I have ever heard. Despite this self-justifying tosh from Labour, the PM does now seem successfully to have managed to regain some initiative. I doubt he was ever in any real danger of being unseated by this whole issue. Although two backbench Labour MPs – Dennis Skinner and Sir Gerald Kaufman – did call on the PM to resign, both those gentlemen can comfortably be described as ‘cranks’. Mr Cameron was always politically strong enough to ride out this storm – even if it was going to be a bumpy ride for him.
The turning point for Mr Cameron probably came at Prime Minister’s Questions on 13th July. The Leader of the Opposition was particularly unimpressive on that occasion and failed to land any convincing blows on the PM. There is a strong impression that the public see through Mr Miliband’s cant and hypocrisy and the PM struck a powerful blow through his decision to publish all his contacts with News Corps, while Mr Miliband published only a partial account. Similarly, Mr Cameron’s performance at the following PMQs session on 20th July was powerful and prime ministerial. In a testament to how overblown this whole story has now become, the Prime Minister answered 136 questions and spent three hours behind the Despatch Box (the same amount of time W. E. Gladstone devoted to debating Home Rule for Ireland).
The opinion polls, fascinatingly, seem to indicate that none of this has had much effect on Mr Cameron’s ratings. Mr Miliband still trails the PM and a YouGov poll indicated Mr Cameron had dropped just two points (well within their margin of error).
One striking aspect of ‘hackgate’ that probably is worth noting, however, has been the deleterious absence of what James Forsyth writing in The Spectator called “Cameron’s praetorians”. It was, indeed, one of the most prominent features of the wall-to-wall news coverage of the scandal – the total absence of Tories on our television screens vigorously defending the Prime Minister. Should this not strike us as an extraordinary omission? The only member of the Cabinet who made a half-descent fist of trying to come to the PM’s defence was, of all people, his Lib-Dem deputy Nick Clegg. It begs the question, was this just negligence by Conservative MPs…or reluctance?
The invisibility of Baroness Warsi, the so-called Party Chair, was particularly egregious. Surely she, more than anyone, should have been camped out in the television studios. We have to ask, where were they all? One does worry that this points to a much wider and long-standing problem within the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, it has much to do with Mr Cameron’s current approach to party management. His failure to massage egos and develop a rapport with backbenchers has been muttered and grumbled of in Tory circles in the past but this saga has exposed it for all the world to see.
Logic dictates that, the moment it became apparent the ‘Coulson factor’ was going to draw fire onto the Prime Minister, his PR team at Number 10 should have been on the phones, calling on loyal backbenchers to shield their chief. Lady Warsi and the Chief Whip should have overseen the coordinated shoving of every telegenic, media-savvy or even vaguely articulate Tory MP they could lay their hands on into the nearest news studio and in front of every TV camera they could find. Instead, Mr Miliband and his Labour MPs and old has-beens like Lord Prescott received wall-to-wall coverage and the PM took a pummeling.
We are told that the Prime Minister subsequently had a relatively friendly meeting with the influential 1922 Committee of backbench MPs last week, leaving the meeting to hands enthusiastically slamming on desktops and raucous applause. There does seem to be a sense that Mr Cameron has weathered the storm and is now out of danger.
But questions about his relations with his own backbenches are not going to go away. We now know that all is not as it should be and this is not the first evidence we have been given (see Mark Pritchard’s angry comments lambasting the PM when introducing his Animal Welfare Bill – I urge everyone to read Hansard, if you did not hear it it. It was explosive stuff). The Prime Minister will need to look at this very closely and make urgent changes if he is to avoid another unnecessarily protracted and lonely PR nightmare largely of his own making (which, given the fact he is an ex-PR man, is pretty embarrassing). His first act should be to fire Lady Warsi and replace her with a new Party Chair, preferably from the Commons rather than the House of Lords. Doubtless the PM will be worried, for obvious reasons, about sacking a working-class Moslem women, whom he ennobled to dis-spell myths about the Conservative Party but it is vital he do so before ‘hackgate’ resurfaces (which it will).
Sack her, make her High Commissioner to Pakistan…whatever. Just get rid of her. He also needs to have a serious shake-up at the Whips Office. The comments made by Mr Pritchard (who alleged he was first bribed then threatened not to introduce his Bill – a wild overreaction and not the way to treat a member of the ’22) combined with the mini-backbench rebellion over personal tax allowances back in June and repeated mumblings about the heavy-handedness of the whips means that a reshuffle is an urgent requirement. Most importantly of all, the Prime Minister needs to learn how to schmooze and he needs to start doing it now. He needs to walk the corridors and press the flesh in the Tory tearooms and bars and offer up flattery and encouragement to his backbenchers. If he does not, he will experience the same fate as his illustrious predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, who was ultimately undone not by the electorate but by her own party.
To read A.P. Schrader’s other articles visit A.P Schrader’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast and A.P. Schrader.