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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: Can Cameron get his government back on track?

On Monday the Prime Minister took to the airwaves in an attempt to reassert his authority and to try to reassure voters of the overall competence of his seemingly accident prone government. Before the day was over, former Cabinet Secretary Gus (now Lord) O'Donnell, accused the coalition of blaming civil servants for its own incompetence. On Tuesday morning the Public Accounts Committee's accusations of a lack of strategic direction gave fresh impetus to the media narrative that this government is lost in a mid-term fog. At lunchtime IPSOS Mori reported the lowest poll ratings for David Cameron and his government since the general election, including a big post-Budget surge in dissatisfaction among Conservative supporters.

But by yesterday evening these all looked like minor irritations as the Leveson inquiry brought into public view the damning string of emails and texts between Jeremy Hunt's special adviser and James Murdoch's public affairs chief, Fred Michel. Even allowing for exaggeration on the part of the latter, it's very hard to see how the relationship between the Culture Secretary and News International could be described as “quasi-judicial.” Other names were dragged in as James Murdoch's diary was discussed, including the Chancellor's, whose special adviser appears to have been keeping Michel informed on government thinking around the time of the BSkyB bid, not to mention the already-discussed Christmas supper the Prime Minister attended at Rebekah Brooks' home and at which James Murdoch says he had a short conversation with the Prime Minister about the bid.

Confirming the old adage that a week is a long time in politics, David Cameron must be feeling that aeons have elapsed since he told Today listeners on Monday morning how he wanted to raise his game. What next? Is it any longer worth bothering to rebut O'Donnell's charges of dumping on civil servants, or to try to prove he's not a “posh boy out of touch with voters”? Is there any point in spelling out a bold strategic vision and purpose for his government? Or will it all simply be dismissed as an exercise in spin, which has crashed to earth thanks to the exposure of ministerial cosiness with the Murdoch group?

With only a week to go before local and (London) mayoral elections, voters are going to need a few good reasons to tick the Conservative box on their ballot papers and it's very hard to see how Mr Cameron can regain the initiative any time soon. Keenly aware of this is Boris Johnson, whose re-election in London has ceased to be a foregone conclusion and begins to look perilously close, thanks to the unpopularity of Conservatives in government.

To try and offset this Boris has, as ever, been distancing himself from the party leadership and displaying his independence. He's also had some fairly crisp advice for the government in its sea of troubles. In his recent Sunday Times interview, for example, Boris made clear his views on civil servants who get ideas above their pay grade. With one of his inimitable metaphorical flourishes, the Mayor said that any Whitehall mandarins attempting to resurrect the idea of a third runway at Heathrow should get “a massive electric shock as soon as they touch that fence. There will be a terrific smell of singed official and they will come up with something else.” It may be pure rhetoric, but you get the feeling that a government led by Boris would be rather less inclined to let O'Donnell, or his successor Sir Jeremy Heywood, have quite such a free hand as at present in Downing Street.

And would the Mayor have got himself into scrapes by being cosy with News International, given the opportunity? We can only speculate. It's possible, but it is quite hard to imagine Boris bothering to suck up to the Murdoch empire as persistently and obligingly as key figures in government seem to have been willing to do. He makes no secret of enjoying power, but he doesn't much like concealing his true opinions merely in order to please, and he clearly hates toadying.

If Boris fails to recapture London, the Prime Minister can take no satisfaction from seeing his rival worsted by Ken Livingstone's lamentable campaign. A freelance Boris will no doubt continue to find an audience for his brand of conviction Conservatism, while the Prime Minister struggles to get his government back on track.

Governing in coalition has been bumpy at times, but until this week David Cameron generally seemed to be enjoying the ride. As he tries to steer his government through this latest crisis, however, events demand that he now shifts into an entirely new gear, including taking some very difficult decisions. Few people in Downing Street will have got much sleep last night. It seems likely that the only thing restraining the Prime Minister from jettisoning his Culture Secretary will be the fear that this will not provide a firewall for him, but instead draw the flames closer.

At times like this, a government needs reserves of competence, credibility and loyalty to draw on, rather than an accumulation of bad headlines, disillusionment and mistrust. It also needs to have – and to have conveyed to the public – a strong set of convictions and sense of purpose. It's always been said that David Cameron is at his best when the going gets tough. It's certainly tough enough now for him to prove the truth of that claim.


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