Mr. Omnishambles

Is David Cameron about to get laughed out of office?

Dan Kitwood-WPA Pool/Getty Images
Dan Kitwood-WPA Pool/Getty Images

LONDON — A government may survive unpopularity, apathy, even scandal, but ridicule is another matter. Yet this is the present, sorry predicament that David Cameron’s government finds itself in. As it marks ("celebrates" is clearly the wrong word) two years in power this week, the British prime minister’s Conservative government is adrift in the polls and struggling to retain the electorate’s respect. The depth of Cameron’s predicament was made all the more apparent last week when, in an effort to put recent woes behind him, the prime minister tried to, as the hackneyed phrases have it, "draw a line" or "move on" from recent woes by "turning the page" and relaunching his government. However clever this strategy might have seemed in No. 10 Downing Street, it sent a quite different message to the country: A successful government needs no "fresh start" — far less a total relaunch.

So when Cameron and his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, held a chummy news conference on May 8 in a tractor factory — a venue chosen to demonstrate their commitment to boosting manufacturing and getting Britain back to economic growth — they only succeeded in highlighting the unwelcome fact that Britain isn’t working at present and, with the country suffering a (modest but painful) double-dip recession, growth seems but a distant prospect. They may still build tractors in Essex, but unemployment is at its highest in 15 years.

Nor have events elsewhere in Europe assisted an embattled prime minister. Election results in France and Greece, plus fresh turmoil in Spain and the Netherlands, have highlighted these as dismal times for incumbents. Worse still, from Cameron’s perspective, is that so-called "austerity" is becoming unfashionable across Europe. Even if Cameron is correct to insist that Britain must reduce a deficit that — even in these leaner times — runs at 8 percent a year, the mood and fashion appears to be turning against him.

There is little prospect for relief. Polls show Cameron’s Conservatives trailing Labour by as many as a dozen points; worse still, just 65 percent of 2010’s batch of Conservative voters say they would back Cameron’s party if an election were held next month. In such circumstances, a government needs all the support it can muster.

Yet Cameron’s government has lost more than its share of friends. And what support it once had seems to be deserting it in droves. Backbench Tory MPs complain the prime minister and his chancellor, George Osborne, are "incompetent" or, just as bad, "out of touch." Meanwhile, even the right-wing press has turned on the prime minister. The Daily Telegraph — a paper sometimes nicknamed the "Torygraph" — now complains of about a "lack of basic competence" and warned that "Cameron cannot simply write off his party’s unpopularity as the natural mid-term response to an administration bent on constraining public spending at a time of economic stagnation. In recent months, his Government has been shown to be flawed in gravely worrying ways."

For its part, the Daily Mail (perhaps the most influential paper in Britain) thundered that "the country will not forgive a government which fails to take the brave steps required to fix the economy and give the country a hope of a brighter future. Mr Cameron remains a man of genuine appeal and undoubted ability. He has three years until the election to prove his economic competency and his Tory principles. But the clock is ticking."

With friends like these, who needs enemies? The right has tired of the compromises imposed by the coalition government and wants the prime minister to rediscover his inner-Thatcherite. That means dropping plans for legalizing same-sex marriage or reforming the House of Lords and instead concentrating on cutting everything and anything. It means slashing public spending, taxes, immigration, regulations, and welfare. The papers note, with approval, that Boris Johnson was reelected as London’s mayor on a populist conservative platform. When Boris — as he is universally known — returns (as it is presumed he will) to the House of Commons when his mayoral term is up, he will inevitably be seen as a rival and potential successor to Cameron.

Rather than suppose that Cameron’s problems stem from the failure of austerity, the British right complains that Cameron has not been tough enough on public spending. Increased debt repayments and higher welfare payments — the cost of rising unemployment — mean that core government spending has only been reduced by 2 percent since the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats replaced Gordon Brown in No. 10 Downing Street. In fact, Osborne’s timetable for deficit reduction has slipped and now looks more like that proposed by Labour prior to the 2010 election than it does to Osborne’s own original plans. A deficit that was supposed to be eliminated by 2015 will instead survive until at least 2017.

The chancellor, in fact, bears a heavy responsibility for Cameron’s troubles. His recent budget was swiftly declared an "omnishambles." This withering phrase, borrowed from the satirical TV show The Thick of It (penned by the same team bringing Veep to HBO), became an omni-purpose description of a government that has lost its way. Although the budget lifted some low-paid workers out of the burden of income tax, it also dragged millions of middle-earners into higher tax brackets while cutting income taxes for the wealthiest 3 percent of Britons. Added to that, changes in regulations governing serious subjects (such as tax relief for charitable donations) and trivial matters (slapping value-added taxes on hot meat pies or pasties) dominated headlines for days.

Meanwhile, the government’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire threatens fresh embarrassment at every turn. On May 15, Rebekah Brooks, previously editor of the Sun and chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper holdings, was charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice. Her husband, the racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks and a schoolboy friend of Cameron, was also charged as part of the ongoing police inquiry into the phone-hacking scandal that persuaded Murdoch to close the News of the World and withdraw his bid to increase his shareholding in the satellite TV company BSkyB.

Cameron’s determination to win Murdoch’s support once seemed a prudent political investment. That worm has turned; now it seems like a gross, unsavory miscalculation that no longer seems appropriate in a political climate in which Murdoch has, at least temporarily, been declared persona non grata. Cameron’s government was happy to allow Murdoch to purchase BSkyB (a position that antagonized every other media company in Britain), and the discovery that the minister charged with ruling — in a "quasi-judicial" manner — on the bid appeared to be in regular discussions with Murdoch’s representatives further fuels the suspicion that the government was flying too close to the Murdoch sun.

Last week, Cameron’s former chief spin doctor, Andy Coulson, appeared at the judicial inquiry that is currently investigating links between politicians, the media, and the police. Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, survived relatively unscathed, but his mere appearance reinforced the extent to which the Tories were linked to Murdoch’s empire.

Nor did the embarrassment end there. The fact that the prime minister sent a text message to Brooks commiserating with her when she was forced to step down from her post at News International was bad enough. Worse still came the news that, as part of their regular text-friendship, Brooks had to tell Cameron that LOL appended to the end of text messages is not, in fact, generally understood to stand for "Lots of Love." (It means, for any reader not familiar with the youth-inspired conventions of text-speak, "Laugh Out Loud.") One can only imagine how awkward and deeply satiric some of his messages must have been perceived.

These discoveries, seemingly trivial, help foster the impression of a prime minister simultaneously out of touch with ordinary people and far too close to "powerful special interests," whatever they are. No wonder the government is struggling to make itself heard. If these were happier economic times, then much of this could be dismissed as just the usual political froth and chatter that’s a large part of the Westminster universe. But, of course, these are not happy, sunny, economic times. Consequently, every setback, every presentational blunder, every set of dreary economic figures reinforces the suspicion that something has gone wrong and that Cameron’s government is adrift and urgently requires a new rudder.

In time, and with some luck, the ship of state may yet be righted. The government will hope that Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics produce a feel-good factor to cheer Britons. Perhaps these summer entertainments will prove a tonic, but most of all, the electorate wants economic growth and a government that appreciates the difficulties faced by ordinary voters. As Cameron’s government reaches half-term, the message, delivered by voters and the newspapers alike, is simple and stern: Must Do Better.

Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.

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