Political sketch: Cash-for-croutons

Dave's battering from the wrong side of Fleet Street.

When Harold Wilson came up with adage "a week is a long time in politics," he could not have imagined that a successor would reduce it to just three hours. Stand up David Cameron.

With the cash-for-croutons scandal leading the news for the second day in a row, the hapless, inaptly named, Paymaster General Francis Maude was trundled out onto the Today Programme at 8am this morning to try to draw a line under it.

He was to make it quite clear that the Prime Minister was standing firm and would not be naming who he had invited round to his place for dinner with him and Sam Cam, as this was a totally private matter.

But as what remained of Francis escaped into the street following disemboweling by Evan Davis. By then, it was already obvious this would not stand and so at 11am, a sweaty faced PM took advantage of a pre-booking at the Alzheimer's Society to cave in.

It would be wrong, however, to lay the real credit for this volte-face with Mr Davis -- or indeed Mr Maude. Instead, the final realization in Downing Street was that they had managed to fall out spectacularly with their traditional backers the Tory Press. It was only after they had digested the full severity of the attacks on their man this morning in the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun that Cameron Camp accepted the game was up.

The Prime Minister has never been a family favourite among the more recidivist members of Fleet Street who much prefer the nouveau riche to the simply-riche like Dave. And their distrust has only grown over the eagerness with which he has embraced the link-up with the Lib Dems which he and they both know has helped keep the "hang 'em and flog 'em" approach to politics -- so beloved of their readers -- in check.

But even he was stung by the severity of the attacks this morning.

The Daily Mail, which ran a headline asking "Just why is Cameron such a terrible judge of character," questioned the appointment of Treasurer Cruddas and asked about his lack of judgement when it come to "spivs" with money.

It was the Mail which led the campaign to oust previous Tory Treasurer David Rowlands, who forked out £2.7m for the Party at the General Election, having said his appointment was being "viewed with alarm" following allegations about his business affairs. Editor Paul Dacre will have noted that Mr Rowlands was one of the "high value" guests now admitted by the Prime Minister to have sat at the Cameron table.

The Telegraph, up in arms since the Osborne cock-up over pensioners last week infuriated thousands of its readers, said the cumulative impression was "toxic" for the Tories.

Equally scathing was the Sun, who only a year ago was solidly pro-Cameron as he partied away with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks. But that was before he was forced into the Leveson inquiry to head off the trouble cause by another of his character calls, making Andy Coulson his chief mouthpiece. The Sun asked if millions of voters will be wondering if the 50p tax rate was scrapped after "a few cosy lunches with millionaire backers".

Cameron will no doubt find a way out of this latest disaster as he has the rest, but the mistakes keep adding up.

He gambles on short memories and long traditions to bring the faithful -- and that includes his side of Fleet Street -- back on side come the election. But that assumes he will still be there and, as Margaret Thatcher found out, it isn't always a given.

Who's for dinner? Photograph: Getty Images

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

Photo: Getty
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Who's winning the European referendum? The Vicar of Dibley gives us a clue

These polls seem meaningless, but they reveal things more conventional ones miss.

At the weekend, YouGov released some polling on 30 fictional characters and their supposed views on Brexit.  If you calculate a net pro-Remain score (per cent thinking that person would back Remain minus the per cent thinking they’d vote for Leave), you have a list that is topped by Geraldine Granger, the Vicar of Dibley (+21), and ends with Jim Royle (-38).

It’s easy to mock this sort of thing, and plenty did: “pointless”, “polling jumping the shark”, and so on. Some even think pollsters ask daft questions just to generate cheap headlines. What a cynical world we live in.

But the answers to those questions tell you quite a lot, both about the referendum campaign and about voters in general.

For one thing, most of the fictional characters that people saw as voting to Remain are (broadly) nice people, whilst the Outers included a fair few you’d not want to be stuck in a lift with, along with other chancers and wasters. On one side, you have the Vicar of Dibley (+21), Mary Poppins (+13), Miranda (+11), and Dr Who (+9) taking on Hyacinth Bucket (-13), Tracy Barlow (-15), Del Boy (-28), and Basil Fawlty (-36) on the other. This isn’t really much of a contest.

Obviously, some of these are subjective judgements. Personally, I’d not want to be stuck in a lift with the Vicar of Dibley under any circumstances – but she’s clearly meant to be a broadly sympathetic character.  Ditto – with knobs on – Miranda. And yes, some of the Outer characters are more nuanced. Captain Mainwaring (-31) may be pompous and insecure, but he is a brave man doing his best for his country. But still, it’s hard not to see some sort of division here, between broadly good people (Remain) and some more flawed individuals (Out).

So, on one level, this offers a pretty good insight into how people see the campaigns.  It’s why polling companies ask these sort of left-field questions – like the famous Tin Man and Scarecrow question asked by John Zogby – because they can often get at something that normal questions might miss. Sure, they also generate easy publicity for the polling company – but life’s not binary: some things can generate cheap headlines and still be interesting.

But there are two caveats. First, when you look at the full data tables you find that the numbers saying Don’t Know to each of these questions are really big– as high as 55 per cent for both Tracy Barlow and Arthur Dent. The lowest is for both Basil Fawlty and Del Boy, but that’s still 34 per cent. For 26 out of the 30 characters, the plurality response was Don’t Know. The data don’t really show that the public think Captain Birdseye (-11) is for Out; when half of all respondents said they don’t know, they show that the public doesn’t really have a clue what Captain Birdseye thinks.

Much more importantly, second, when you look at the cross breaks, it becomes clear how much of this is being driven by people’s own partisan views. Take James Bond, for example. Overall, he was seen as slightly pro-Remain (+5). But he’s seen as pro-Brexit (-22) by Brexit voters, and pro-Remain (+30) by Remain voters.

The same split applies to Dr Who, Postman Pat, Sherlock Holmes, Miranda, and so on.

In fact, of the 30 characters YouGov polled about, there were just eleven where respondents from both sides of the debate agreed – and these eleven excluded almost all of the broadly positive characters.

So, here’s the ten characters where both Remain and Leave voters agreed would be for Brexit: Alan Partridge; Jim Royle; Del Boy; Hyacinth Bucket; Pat Butcher; Tracy Barlow; Captain Mainwaring; Catherine Tate’s Nan; Cruella De Vil; and Basil Fawlty.

That’s not a great roll call. And it must be saying something that even Outers think Cruella De Vil, Alan Patridge, and Hyacinth Bucket would be one of theirs.

Mind you, the only pro-Remain character that both sides agree on is Sir Humphrey Appleby. That’s not great either.

For the rest, everyone wants them for their own.

So what about those who say they don’t yet know how they will vote in the referendum? These might be the key swing voters, after all. Maybe they can give a more unbiased response. Turns out their ranking is broadly similar to the overall one – with scores that are somewhere between the views of the Outers and the Inners.

But with this group the figures for don’t knows get even bigger: 54 per cent at a minimum, rising to a massive 77 per cent for Arthur Dent.

And that’s because, lacking a partisan view about the referendum, they are not able to project this view onto fictional characters.  They lack, in the jargon, a heuristic enabling them to answer the question. Which tells you something about how most people answered the questions.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.