You can tell a lot about how a party’s press operation thinks things are going from who it sends out to do its dirty work on the airwaves. Yesterday the Conservatives sent Michael Fallon out to defend the Government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet, which suggested that they knew it was going to be controversial and would need defending by someone skilled at sticking to the line, even when the line is totally untenable and difficult to defend.
Today, Nick Boles popped up on Radio 4 to defend David Cameron’s eventual admission that he had indeed made money from the offshore fund set up by his father. The Skills Minister had been sent out to do a personal, sorrowful interview on behalf of the Prime Minister, in which he repeatedly emphasised the natural instinct that David Cameron felt to protect his father in responding to the revelations about his tax arrangements. There was no attempt to go on the attack over this. Instead, Boles tried to pour oil all over the troubled waters caused by the partial statements and defensiveness from the Downing Street press operation over the past few days.
That Cameron refused to take questions from the press at his referendum event in Exeter yesterday also tells you a great deal about how he feels the past few days have gone. It’s not just his personal problems with the Panama Papers that have been causing grief. The Prime Minister went away to try to recover from the vitriolic Tory row on disability benefit cuts, only to return to a crisis in the steel industry. Now he is engulfed in his own row, and has another Tory party row to deal with when recess is over too, with MPs in a rage about the government’s leaflets.
The government is back in an omnishambles period. Experience will tell the Prime Minister that this doesn’t last for ever, or indeed stop you from increasing the number of seats you have in Parliament at the next election – which is something Labour needs to be aware of as it enjoys this miserable period for the Conservatives – but for Cameron, the problem is that he is trying to stay relevant and powerful as Prime Minister for as long as possible so that he can get on with building a legacy. Strings of rows like the ones the government has just endured will make that much more difficult.