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Downing Street has forgotten that its business is politics

13 April 2014

11:03 AM

13 April 2014

11:03 AM

The Sunday papers resound with the sound of Tory MPs thinking aloud about how to deal with ill-discipline: principally expenses and harassment.

On harassment, the Sunday Times reports the 1922 Committee is considering its own regulation plans after deciding that placing the complaints procedure in the hands of whips might lead to scandals being ‘hushed up’ because politics would win out over justice. Committee chairman Graham Brady has said: ‘We have taken independent advice and had preliminary conversations with Acas [the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] about how an appropriate grievance procedure might best be structured.’ On expenses, Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith make the case, yet again, for voters to be given powers of recall over MPs.

Carswell and Goldsmith’s article appears in the Sun on Sunday; an indication that the expenses scandal resonates far beyond the confines of the Westminster Village. This simple fact makes the Prime Minister’s comparative silence very strange indeed. This is a moment for the leader; not charismatics like Carswell, Goldsmith and Brady. Not for the first time this parliament, backbench Tory MPs are asking what has happened to David Cameron’s political instincts.

It was not always so. Cameron won plaudits in the last parliament when he attacked the MPs’ expenses system. Duck houses were condemned. Transgressors were savaged. Even friends like Andrew McKay were abandoned. He had caught the public mood – and won the public’s attention. Chastened backbenchers told journalists that Cameron’s decisiveness enabled the Tories to weather the crisis better than Gordon Brown’s moribund Labour Party.

Now we see the difference between opposition and government. Opposition is about taking limited opportunities to create tactical advantage. Government is about grip: closing out the background noise and taking the long-term view. Cameron took a while to grasp this distinction: his government’s U-turn habit was very serious. But, having settled into governing, the prime minister and his team appear to have forgotten that their business is politics. Government types say that the prime minister should choose the government, not backbenchers and newspaper editors. True enough; but Cameron stood behind Maria Miller and lost because no one would defend her after her inadequate apology. It was a misjudgment that has damaged the prime minister. The damage is not terminal (this will, of course, blow over); but it is real nonetheless. And the timing of this unforced error, on the cusp of the European election campaign, is most unfortunate; distracting attention from Nigel Farage’s band of purple paper tigers.

The Spectator’s leading article this week argues that the Miller tale is yet more proof that the political operation in Downing Street is lamentable and that Lynton Crosby should be dispatched there immediately. The events of the last few days reinforce the argument; backbenchers are making the political weather while the prime minister gets ready for some yoga in Lanzarote.

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