Melanie Phillips

16 May 2011

By playing to the gallery, David Cameron's selling himself short

Published in: Daily Mail

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When David Cameron became leader  of the Conservative Party, there were high hopes that he would end the obsessive preoccupation with image and positioning which so debased political life under the Labour government.

How disappointing, therefore, to find the Cameron knee tends to jerk opportunistically in response to media coverage, and to an extent that would have put even Labour’s spin-doctors to shame.

In recent days, examples of this regrettable tendency have been coming thick and fast.

The most egregious — so much so that it drew sharp protest — was the way in which the Prime Minister leapt on board the Madeleine McCann bandwagon.

Last week, Kate McCann published an emotional book about her daughter

Madeleine’s disappearance from the Portuguese holiday resort of Praia da Luz four years ago. Apparently she hoped it would put pressure on the Government to order a full review of the case.

Announcing that she and her husband Gerry had written to David Cameron with such a request, Mrs McCann said: ‘I think when you’re in a position such as the Prime Minister, you have a responsibility.’ And her husband said Mr Cameron should offer the Portuguese prime minister the services of the Metropolitan Police in such a review.
Lo and behold, the very next day the Home Office announced that the Met would now ‘bring its particular expertise’ to the investigation.

What did that mean precisely? No one could explain. But what was immediately clear was the deep irritation of the Met at being asked to provide scarce manpower — at a likely cost of some millions of pounds — to revive an investigation by a foreign police force which appears to have been fatally flawed from the start and which may therefore be beyond rescue.

Of course, the McCanns deserve tremendous sympathy over their appalling plight. And people may well admire the focused, resolute manner in which they have managed to revive interest in their case and keep alive the hope of finding their missing child.

But that does not mean the Prime Minister should have responded to their campaign by asking British police to get involved.

Let’s hope the Met’s involvement does indeed produce a breakthrough in this distressing case. However, it is most likely that it will not.

Moreover, as two peers who are also members of police watchdogs pointed out, by making this request to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner — which placed him in a most difficult position — the Prime Minister has bust wide open the constitutional protection that gives the police operational independence from political interference. These considerations appear to have been cavalierly tossed aside simply to play to the gallery of public sentiment.

This troubling episode occurred a mere couple of days after the Prime Ministerial knee had jerked with equal alacrity, albeit in a rather different direction.

A front-page story in The Guardian made the extraordinary claim that the Government was proposing to invite pupils from wealthy homes to pay for places at prestigious universities that had already filled their quota of state-subsidised places.

In vain did the Universities Minister David Willetts protest — to the bemusement of all — that this would aid ‘social mobility’ by freeing up more places for disadvantaged candidates within the quota. 

The BBC, education unions, Labour MPs and others all promptly piled in to complain the Government was proposing to hand educational privileges to the wealthy, who would be able to buy educational excellence at the expense of the poor.

Within a few hours, Mr Cameron had stamped upon this idea — and upon the hapless Mr Willetts — from a great height. There was absolutely no question, he declared, that any student would ‘buy’ a university place that would be awarded on educational merit alone.

But the irony was the real sting of this proposal was surely not that it would privilege the wealthy but rather that it would punish the middle classes — twice over.

For the ‘wealthy’ — a category which inevitably would expand to include the middle classes — would now be asked to pay through the nose for the places to which they had hitherto been entitled on the same financial basis as everyone else.

And the reason was that the very same Mr Willetts, who was now being mercilessly pilloried as a procurer for the wealthy, was, in fact, enthusiastically extending Labour’s policy of forcing universities to discriminate against better-off candidates in favour of admitting students from the wrong side of the tracks.

In other words, the middle classes were to be used as a milch cow to fund the very programme of social engineering that was depriving their children of university places.

Yet Mr Cameron killed off the policy in response to the absurd hyperbole of the Left, whose irrational obsession with ‘the rich’ means that any special treatment of the better-off is automatically seen as class war — even when they are actually being singled out for punishment.

The third example occurred at the weekend when the media reported that the Military Covenant, the unwritten agreement under which the state pledges a duty of care towards the Armed  Forces, would be given the force of law.

This was being spun as a guarantee to service personnel of special treatment, such as priority access to school places, NHS treatment and housing, in return for the enormous sacrifices they make for their country.

But even before the announcement by the Ministry of Defence of this principled development it was falling apart.

For it turns out that what is to be enshrined in law is no more than the principles behind the Covenant. Anything more specific is not to be spelled out — for fear of spawning myriad lawsuits to make sure the Government puts its money where its mouth is. 

In other words, this new law will almost certainly prove to be totally meaningless. Given the disgraceful way in which the Armed Forces are generally treated, with scant regard paid to ensuring their safety in the field let alone privileging them in civilian life, this was surely the most distasteful opportunism of the lot.

These examples, furthermore, are by no means unusual. Much of Mr Cameron’s agenda seems to comprise measures to buy off one interest group or another.

Nor are these gestures politically balanced. For generally, he tends to throw a few belated bones to what he considers to be the Right-wing press (who actually represent his abandoned core constituency of the middle ground) in order to pacify them over his habitual genuflection to the Left-wing media and, above all, the BBC.

This all suggests that he possesses no core of principle, only the desire to retain power at all costs.

Such playing to the gallery sells Mr Cameron very short. For he has considerable political assets such as calmness in the eye of the storm, innate authority and a valuable single-mindedness.

The Prime Minister should have more confidence in his own strengths. After all, the public can sniff out opportunism from a very great distance. The collapse of the trust this engenders matters even more than disagreement over policy.

Mr Cameron should be advised that, regardless of the short-term approval of a fickle media class, the political virtue in not playing to the gallery is therefore its own reward.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
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