Is David Cameron's luck finally running out?

The Prime Minister's personal poll ratings are falling, indicating that voters have stopped giving h

Back in February, a New Statesman cover story asked: how long can David Cameron keep getting away with it?My colleague Rafael Behr discussed how the Prime Minister is “uncannily immune from blame”, saying:

To Labour's frustration, on most issues Cameron's ear tends to be pretty well tuned. He performs the role of Prime Minister with a breezy aplomb that looks enough like competence for voters to give him the benefit of the doubt. That leeway is something Labour knows will shrink over time, just as the party awaits the moment when Cameron and Osborne will start getting the blame for economic malaise. As one shadow cabinet minister puts it: "People haven't yet realised that the government is failing.

Has the time now come when voters have stopped giving Cameron the benefit of the doubt? It looks like it, if today’s Evening Standard/Ipsos Mori poll is to be believed.

The number of people dissatisfied with Cameron’s performance has risen to 60 per cent, the highest since he became Conservative leader in 2005.
It appears that this is linked to a loss of confidence in the coalition’s handling of the economy, as our cover story suggested. Despite mounting evidence against the Conservative austerity package, this is an area in which Labour has consistently failed to gain ground. As Behr’s article argued:

He and Osborne have controlled the terms of debate so that the dominant question in people's minds is who should be permitted to clean up Labour's mess, which naturally invites the answer "not Labour".

The UK’s dip back into recession and the broadly negative response to George Osborne’s latest Budget perhaps made it inevitable that the tide would turn (indeed, it may be more surprising that it took so long). In the Ipsos poll, 31 per cent of voters said that they thought the Tories had the best policies on the economy – but Labour nearly matched this with 30 per cent. This is notable, given that this is the one area where the Conservatives have consistently outstripped the opposition. Just a month ago, they had a clear 10 point lead.

Confidence also fell, with 44 per cent believing that the economy will get worse over the next year, compared with 21 per cent who think it will improve. This gives on overall “optimism” score of minus 23, five points worse than last month.

Nor is this poll the only sign that the tide may be turning against Cameron and his government’s austerity package. As my colleague Jon Bernstein noted over the weekend, a Sunday Times/YouGov poll showed a personal ratings swing towards the Labour leader Ed Miliband and away from Cameron. The scores were hardly cause for celebration for either leader – Miliband was on minus 23 while Cameron was on minus 29 – but it is a significant that the Prime Minister’s personal ratings are falling, given that he has always out-polled his party. It looks like Lucky Dave’s luck is running out.
 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.