Seven days that shook David Cameron - It's been one of the worst weeks since the Prime Minister came to power. How can the Government get back on track?

The danger for David Cameron is that accusations of incompetence and a sense of drift are starting to stick
After a fairly successful Tory conference, which ended 11 days ago with a well-received speech by David Cameron, it had looked as though the Prime Minister was turning a corner. Then No 10 walked into one of its worst weeks since Mr Cameron came to power. Across a range of fronts the Government found itself on the defensive. Even when there was potentially better news for the Government, such as Home Secretary Theresa May’s decision not to bow to American pressure to extradite the computer hacker Gary McKinnon to the United States, it was soon overshadowed by other damaging rows. How did the week unfold and what might Mr Cameron do to get on track?
European row
Facing calls for a referendum, Mr Cameron sought to provide some clarity on his European policy. Eurozone leaders are edging towards closer integration, for which there is little British support. But Mr Cameron says that while he wants, eventually, to renegotiate the terms of British membership of the EU, he is reluctant to contemplate leaving even if he doesn’t get what he wants in any future renegotiation. He is also unable to explain precisely which powers he wants returned, although he says he will put the new relationship with Europe to a vote, after the next election. In contrast, some Tory members of the Cabinet, such as the Education Secretary Michael Gove, let it be known that they certainly don’t rule out withdrawal. It all leaves the Prime Minister looking as though he is advocating a tricksy “in/in” referendum on the EU, just as some of his colleagues contemplate bolder action. Result: more confusion.
In contrast to his reluctance to hold a plebiscite on the EU, Mr Cameron charged ahead with plans for a referendum on whether Scotland should leave the UK. In Edinburgh he signed an agreement with Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, clearing the way for a vote north of the border in the autumn of 2014. The Prime Minister’s team was pleased that their strong view prevailed, that it must be a straight in/out question, without the third option on the ballot paper that Mr Salmond had been seeking, of more powers for the devolved Scottish Parliament. However, some Tories were furious that the agreement had been stitched up without any reference to the UK Parliament at Westminster. It also offered concessions to Mr Salmond, including allowing votes for 16 year-olds, which could set a precedent for UK elections.
Energy fiasco
When the Prime Minister blurted out on Wednesday that he would legislate to ensure all customers were put on to the lowest tariff by energy firms, he was attempting to prove that he is on the side of consumers sick of price rises. Unfortunately, the details did not seem to have been worked out in advance and No 10 struggled to answer basic questions about how the initiative would work. This enabled Labour to accuse the Prime Minister of making up important policy on the hoof.
Economy eclipsed
As the Government was put on the rack over energy policy and other matters, some good news was breaking on the economic front. The latest figures showed unemployment fell by 50,000 to 2.528 million, taking the jobless rate down to 7.6 per cent. The number of people in employment is at its highest ever level, with 29.6 million in work. Despite the recession, and even though many of the new jobs are part-time, it is another sign that a recovery may be under way. Ministers were also able to point to better than expected borrowing figures. But, astonishingly, the Government seemed incapable of fashioning a coherent defence of itself from these positive developments.
The 'Plebgate' problem
The Andrew Mitchell imbroglio, over remarks he made to police officers guarding Downing Street, was allowed to run for a month before he resigned. This meant that at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Ed Miliband was able to taunt Mr Cameron mercilessly over his refusal to fire the Chief Whip. Mr Cameron was determined not to bow to Labour pressure, but by Friday afternoon Mr Mitchell had had enough. This left the Prime Minister in the embarrassing position of having staked his authority on keeping Mr Mitchell in post, but then losing him anyway after a month of damaging publicity. There was also pressure behind the scenes from Tory MPs, which suggests that Mr Cameron’s party management problems are not easing. When Mr Mitchell did resign, he denied using the word “pleb”, but admitted swearing at the officers. Senior Conservatives fear the protracted affair has done lasting damage to the Tory “brand”.
Osborne embarrassment
Just as Mr Mitchell was seeing the Prime Minister to resign on Friday afternoon, the Chancellor was facing accusations that he, or a member of his staff, had bridled at being asked to pay to upgrade his standard class train ticket to first class. The spat which followed was undoubtedly silly. Mr Osborne was happy to pay for the upgrade of his ticket and a Treasury minister, Sajid Javid, said yesterday that the fuss could be summed up in seven words: “Man Boards Train And Pays For Upgrade”. But the incident allowed the Government’s critics to claim once again that this is an administration which is out of touch, with senior figures behaving as if entitled to special treatment.
Getting a grip
The danger for the Prime Minister is that accusations of incompetence and a sense of drift are starting to stick. Mr Cameron needs urgently to recognise the extent of the problem. His Downing Street machine is simply not up to scratch. In particular the No 10 communications operation needs a radical rethink. Party management also requires attention, as worried Tory MPs fret about the impact of recent events on the party’s electoral prospects. In this Mr Cameron should be aided by the appointment of Sir George Young as Chief Whip. The 71 year-old is respected by colleagues and stands a chance of restoring order on the backbenches, if the Prime Minister will take his counsel.
Mr Cameron’s impressive speech to his party’s conference showed that he still has much to offer when he is equipped with big arguments and takes on Labour robustly. But it is hopeless for the Tories if this work is drowned out by a blizzard of blunders.

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