Bernard Ingham: Rough ride for Cameron as coalition fails to tighten reins

HORSES are a damned nuisance in No 10. Margaret Thatcher was given one in the Jordanian desert but managed, by some quick thinking, to hand it back immediately. “You will look after it so much better than me,” she said sweetly.

Now David Cameron has been made to look shifty by Raisa, the Metropolitan Police retiree who was adopted by News International’s Rebekah Brooks. It took him ages – three days – to admit he had ridden the blessed thing in the Cotswolds, as if it mattered much when your former spokesman was once editor of the News of the World.

All this intensifies the mystery as to why a government led by a former PR chappie has so much trouble presenting itself.

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It is all the more puzzling because his deputy, Nick Clegg, is a former lobbyist; Chancellor George Osborne had originally intended being a journalist; and Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander, to complete the top four hierarchy, spent years as a press officer for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the European Movement and the Cairngorms National Park Authority.

Like Michael Heseltine, this lot should not need a press secretary. Alternatively, they should perhaps listen more to those they have.

All governments make presentational bloomers – after all, they are made up of fallible human beings – but this coalition consistently displays a certain ineptitude.

The Big Society, brainchild of Steve Hilton, Cameron’s so-called blue-sky thinker who is taking a year off to contemplate the heavens from America, is a notable disaster area. It might have been better had it been dubbed “The Bigger Society” in recognition of the millions already engaged in voluntary work. It remains a sensible approach to society’s improvement but a presentational dog’s breakfast.

The coalition could not even privatise some of our forestry into local, caring hands. Its approach to planning reform has got Tory grass roots revolting. The Health Bill is a much-amended, complex melange in pursuit of a vital cause.

The efforts at reforming the criminal justice system would be hilarious if they were not often at odds with human nature. And in Europe the Prime Minister blows hot and cold, or tough and weak.

All this comes at a time when democratic Britain has never been less ideological, less attached to political parties and more open minded. It will respond to reasonable arguments, witness support for the Welfare Reform Bill.

So why can’t the coalition sell solar-heated long johns to Eskimos? It is a complicated story. One strand is the ridiculous media briefing in advance of every initiative instead of a statement to the Commons, which would make ministers think and work harder.

Another lies in the coalition’s admirable constancy on the need to return the nation to solvency. It is true that Vincent Cable is for ever waging his socialist class war, but by and large the government knows what it has to do.

Elsewhere, while there is a coalition agreement to guide them, there is no governing philosophy unless it be somehow to reform Britain. But there’s the rub. That reform is not driven by a collective analysis or will. Still less is its exposition thought through before it is launched.

And with a vast reform agenda it is all the more important that every element is properly explained and the public won over since they are essentially conservative: they do not like change.

These troubles pre-date Clegg’s discovering the need – in a bid to save the Liberal Democrats from an electoral bloodbath – to differentiate his party from the Tories. So fragmentation is now piled on top of elusive purpose.

This is perhaps inevitable in a peacetime coalition. What is not inevitable is the Campbellesque way it allows the media to dictate its daily operations – its desperate need to be seen to responding to the latest sentiment, however trivial.

It is not the function of No 10 or indeed the government to fill tomorrow’s newspapers. I counted it a great achievement as No 10 press secretary when nobody had a single question for me at the 11am Lobby briefing. It happened only once.

The coalition’s purpose should be to govern. An essential part of governing is making your own weather. That requires a more deliberate approach. Presentation can never overcome a lack of depth. But depth, like riding controversial horses, does need explanation.