Another week, another U-turn. The privatisation of our national woodland has been postponed. The prospect of the O2 Wyre Forest, £10 for 60 minutes rambling and 30 free texts, has receded.
There’s a pattern developing here. From everything from schools sport and the Lisbon Treaty, through the photographer hired to make our Prime Minister look like the British David Hasselhoff. Place David Cameron under pressure and he bends. Place him under a bit more pressure and he starts to crack. Really turn up the heat, and he goes bright red in the face and runs home to George Osborne.
I was discussing this with a Labour MP who admitted he’s completely bemused at the way Cameron operates. “It’s a bit like there’s two David Camerons. There’s the man who stood up in the House and gave that incredibly mature, measured response to Bloody Sunday. And then there’s the slightly petulant teenager who appears at Prime Minister’s Questions and loses his rag at the slightest criticism. It’s weird.”
His petulance over the last couple of weeks is understandable. The government’s economic strategy is faltering. His flagship “big society” lies in ruins at his feet. The Tory back benches are starting to polish their knuckledusters.
But some prime ministers thrive on adversity. Margaret Thatcher needed it like she needed oxygen. Tony Blair embraced the “masochism strategy”, placing himself directly in the firing line during the darkest days of Iraq.
Cameron is different. He will take hard decisions. The cuts, NHS reform. But then when those decisions are challenged, he begins to falter.
Maggie Thatcher responded to the outcry over her scorched-earth policies with cold, callous disdain. She ended up being hated – but also feared and, if we’re honest, respected.
Whenever Cameron is faced with the consequences of individual cuts, his initial reaction is to dodge, by attempting to deny there is actually a cut or that it will have an impact, then duck, by claiming he didn’t want to do it but Gordon Brown made him, and finally, if he really comes under pressure, retreat.
Part of this is tactical. Cameron is desperate to present himself as a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. This is partly because he is attempting to adopt the mantle of father of the nation, almost a war leader at a time of crisis. It’s also because he is still desperate to complete the mission of detoxifying the Tory brand, a project put on hold at the time of the election-that-never-was, and never recommissioned.
Ed Miliband is wise to this game, and over the weekend launched a neat assault by accusing his opponent of “recontaminating” the Tories. At the time I thought it was a good line, and it has gained traction. But on reflection, I’m not sure painting Cameron as “the heir to Thatcher” is necessarily the best strategy.
What’s starting to develop is a narrative that the government in general and the Prime Minister in particular are losing control. Mutterings from “senior cabinet sources” about “too many unforced errors” are starting to find their way into the papers. Downing Street, alert to that danger, has suddenly announced the appointment of ten new “policy advisers”.
Dressing Cameron in Thatcher’s suit of iron doesn’t play to that theme. His weakness, not lack of compassion, represents the coalition’s Achilles heel.
His own party knows that only too well. At the time of the rebellion over his proposed reforms to the backbench 1922 Committee, one Tory insider told me: “This is only the start. Cameron’s weak, and the headbangers know it. When the time comes, they will put him under some heavy manners.”
That time is fast approaching. Look at some of his recent statements. The attack on multiculturalism. The pledge to fight “human rights interference from Europe”. The assault on the “benefits culture”.
Nothing New Tory about these themes. They have been Conservative staples for the last century or so. Nor do they represent ideological clarity or strength of purpose. They are the policies of a prime minister who is losing control of, not setting, the agenda.
David Cameron is starting to run out of that most precious political commodity, space. His economic programme dictates one course of action, his need to recast his party as more moderate and progressive another. His natural inclination is to back off from a fight, but his own backbenchers are blocking his line of retreat.
Meanwhile Ed Miliband looks on, with interest, and possibly a little empathy. When he was first elected, his own room for manoeuvre was severely restricted, caught as he was between the Blairites, Brownites and newly enthused Milibites. Now he is starting to stake out some territory, whilst it’s his opponent who feels the walls closing in.
The question is how to best to exploit Cameron’s lack of Thatcherite élan. Perhaps it’s time for Red Ed to turn the tables. Yellow Dave. That has a certain ring to it.