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Cameron on the turn and doing the dirty

Original Source: TRIBUNE MAG: FRIDAY 20 MAY 2011
by Jon Craig Friday, May 20th, 2011

There are more and more examples of the Prime Minister hanging his senior colleagues out to dry

What have Madeleine McCann and the military got in common' Oh, and universities, the National Health Service and forests'

Answer: They’re all issues on which David Cameron has hung a member of his Cabinet out to dry and overruled the policy of a major Government department.

“U-turn if you want to”, Margaret Thatcher famously declared at the 1981 Conservative Party conference. “The lady’s not for turning.”

Well, the current Prime Minister is. And, it seems, David Cameron doesn’t mind publicly humiliating a member of his Cabinet if he thinks he or she has got it wrong.

Theresa May, Liam Fox, David Willetts, Andrew Lansley, Michael Gove and Caroline Spelman – and a few more – have all been hung out to dry by the Prime Minister and their policy abruptly overturned, leaving these poor hapless secretaries of state to squirm in public, smile sheepishly and fall into line behind the latest prime ministerial whim or edict.

But who is the most hapless Cabinet minister of all' Why, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, of course.

“Doesn’t this mess on the NHS tell us all we need to know about this Prime Minister'” Ed Miliband taunted Cameron in one of the Leader of the Opposition’s better moments at Prime Minister’s Questions.

“He breaks his promises, he doesn’t think things through and then, when the going gets tough, he dumps on his minister.”
Well, the last observation was pretty spot-on. But back to PMQs. Ed hadn’t finished. “We have seen the Universities Minister being dumped on for the tuition fees policy”, the Labour leader went on. “We see the Schools Secretary being dumped on for his free schools policy and the poor Deputy Prime Minister, he just gets dumped on every day of the week.”

Ed was certainly right about Clegg, too. And within just a few hours of that taunt, there was further evidence. Shortly before PMQs, in a speech to mark the first anniversary of the coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister  told supporters that the Liberal Democrats had curbed the Tories and were a restraining influence in the coalition.

“You will see a strong liberal identity in a strong coalition Government. You might even call it muscular liberalism”, he said, borrowing a phrase used by David Cameron in what appeared to be an attempt to mock the PM. Big mistake.

Later the same day – after telling MPs at PMQs “There’s only one party you can trust on the NHS and it’s the one that I lead” – the PM told Tory MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee: “We should not allow the Liberal Democrats to pose as a moderating influence. We are the party of the NHS. The pause in the reforms was my decision, not the Deputy Prime Minister’s.”

Ouch. There was more to come. Ed Miliband’s taunt at PMQs was followed by Cameron U-turns on the Madeleine McCann inquiry and a military covenant written into law.

The Labour leader was bang on about the NHS and Cameron’s treatment of the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. When Lansley was forced to announce the pause in the passage of the Government’s NHS legislation in a House of Commons statement, I have rarely seen a more dejected, humiliated or miserable Cabinet minister at the despatch box. How much longer can Lansley continue to suffer the humiliation before he decides he has had enough'

Two Cabinet colleagues, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, are already being tipped by Tory MPs to replace Lansley. One conspiracy theory among Conservative MPs is that Hammond will move to Health and dump the NHS reforms in his first act and Lansley will move to Transport and dump the high-speed rail link in his first act.

Nonsense, a senior Cabinet minister insisted to me. The Prime Minister is the driving force behind the rail link, I was told. Really' In that case, the cynic in me predicts that Cameron will eventually dump the rail link and blame whoever is Transport Secretary at the time.

Tuition fees' David Willetts, the man MPs call “Two Brains” but who had clearly left both of them at home that day, suggested in a most cack-handed fashion that wealthy students could buy their way into top universities.

Dear, oh dear. Whatever happened to social mobility' “That is not going to happen, that’s not our policy”, said the Prime Minister with a steely glint in his eye that suggested he was furious with “No Brains”, sorry, “Two Brains”. “There is no question of people being able to buy their way into university.”

Later, in the Commons, Willetts, too, looked thoroughly miserable and humiliated, as he had to admit that he was wrong and the Prime Minister right.

And what of Michael Gove and free schools' Well, Cameron and Gove have been at odds over the role of religion in these so-called “free schools” – schools the Tories have proposed should be run by parents’ groups, charities and trusts, that is. Michael Gove said religious groups such as the Church of England, Roman Catholics or Muslims would not be able to run them. Oh yes they could, said David Cameron. Which brings us to the two most recent examples of Prime Ministerial hanging a minister out to dry.

Kate and Gerry McCann have been campaigning for years for a review of the bungled investigation into their daughter Madeleine’s disappearance in Portugal. It was a matter for the Portuguese authorities, the British Government insisted.

Yet within hours of a letter from Kate and Gerry to David Cameron published in The Sun, coinciding – it should be said – with publication of their book, they suddenly achieved a breakthrough.

On Sky News, the McCanns’ spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, revealed that Kate and Gerry had met the last three Home Secretaries, Theresa May, Alan Johnson and Jacqui Smith. The Times also reported that a detailed report recommending a full review of the Madeleine McCann case had been sitting on the Home Secretary’s desk for almost a year.

So was it dithering by Theresa May or political interference by the PM' Lord Harris of Haringey, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority and still a senior member, claimed Cameron was “driving a coach and horses” through police protocol.

Then came Cameron’s pledge to enshrine the military covenant into law, only days after Defence Secretary Liam Fox told Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News it would merely be “recognised” in law. The Ministry of Defence, it seems, was worried about a lot of expensive lawsuits being brought by members of the Armed Forces if the covenant was given the full weight of the law.

It’s claimed the military covenant was David Cameron’s ninth U-turn in as many months, following the NHS reforms, school sports, school milk, forestry sell-offs, rape anonymity, Bookstart, housing benefit cuts and immigration targets.

Maybe. Of those eight, the biggest public humiliation suffered by a Cabinet minister at the hands of the Prime Minister was Caroline Spelman’s grovelling apology to MPs after the forest sale fiasco. “I’m sorry, we got this one wrong”, she said.

We, Caroline' Her humiliation began earlier, however, at Prime Minister’s Questions when Ed Miliband asked Cameron whether he was happy about the forest sell-off policy.

“The short answer to that is no”, Cameron replied, in an answer that displayed both refreshing candour and brutal lack of respect for Caroline Spelman. This was probably the most savage of all Cameron’s public dumping on his Cabinet ministers.

I can, however, can think of even more occasions when the PM has undermined a senior colleague. Remember, for instance, last December when Number 10 “slapped down” Ken Clarke over new sentencing guidelines denounced as “soft” by Tory right-wingers'
I do. I was present when the “slapping down” was being administered by a member of the Downing Street inner circle.

But in all these examples, from Madeleine to the military, is David Cameron the hero or the villain for hanging Cabinet ministers out to dry and performing swift U-turns'

I’d say that in most cases the Prime Minister’s judgement has been right and he has rescued those hapless Secretaries of State from blundering ahead with some barmy policies.

Who can argue that the forest sell-off was a good idea' Or that allowing rich kids to get into university by the back door with the help of daddy’s cheque book was anything other than a crackpot idea'

On the military covenant, it’s hard to disagree with Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, who says the Government has done the right thing, but for the wrong reasons, giving in to the Royal British Legion, MPs and the media.

I’m afraid I’m not convinced, however, about David Cameron’s intervention on Madeleine McCann.

Jon Craig is Sky News’ chief political correspondent


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