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The chaos of Cameronism

The Con-Lib coalition’s hyperactivity has led to a shambolic three months of U-turns, scandals and e

"The government has shown all the signs of inexperienced men and women who are intoxicated with their new power. They are like 18-year-olds in a saloon bar trying out every bottle on the shelf." That was the caustic verdict of the then shadow chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, on the new Labour government, less than three weeks after it entered office in May 1997.

Thirteen years on, and less than 100 days into the Con-Lib coalition government, the current Justice Secretary should perhaps have a word with his new cabinet colleagues and, in particular, the Prime Minister. David Cameron is in a hurry. He has pledged to build the "big society", fix the public finances and restore Britain's tarnished image abroad.

But governing at a hectic pace can have dangerous consequences. Cameron may have Margaret Thatcher's radical instincts but he lacks her vision, her work ethic and her attention to detail. The Conservative leader also has a carefully crafted "One-Nation" image to maintain and project; not for him the divisive and toxic legacy of the Iron Lady.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that, on 8 August, Cameron intervened after the junior health minister Anne Milton suggested scrapping free milk for schoolchildren under five in order to save a relatively measly £50m a year.

Hyperactivity disorder

What is surprising, however, is that the Prime Minister did not spot the problem earlier. Instead, the nation was treated to the sight of the hapless David Willetts, the Universities Minister famed for his "two brains", defending Milton's proposal on live television at precisely the moment that Downing Street set about disowning it.

Is this what Cameron's communications director, Andy Coulson, is paid so much for? Perhaps that is unfair. How can any press officer be expected to be up to speed on the frenetic activities of a coalition government that has set out plans to eradicate the structural deficit over five years, cut the welfare budget, reform the financial sector, reorganise the NHS, transform the schools system, elect police commissioners and hold a referendum on electoral reform - and all in the space of its first 100 days?

There is a growing sense that we are being governed, to borrow a phrase from the political scientist Anthony King, "by an entire tribe of hyperactive children", with all the associated, predictable problems. Hyperactivity is not a substitute for good judgement or good governance. Such behaviour leads to chaos, confusion, error and embarrassment. Consider the record of this government's first three months in office. The early "scandals" have been bad enough - from the expenses row that led to the resignation of David Laws as chief secretary to the Treasury to the tabloid revelations of the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne's affair - but far more astonishing has been the number of about-turns on policy issues: from ending free milk for kids to granting anonymity for rape defendants and demanding a vote of at least 55 per cent of MPs to dissolve parliament.

Meanwhile, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who is in charge of overseeing a wave of new academies and "free" schools, has already had to apologise twice to the Commons for various errors and misjudgements in his overhasty plans. Then there are the gaffes. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, used his first appearance at PMQs to declare the Iraq war "illegal", for which he is said to have earned a reprimand from the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O'Donnell. Cameron himself has not been immune to "misspeaking": telling a Turkish audience that their rival, Israel, had confined the Gazans to a "prison camp" and telling an Indian audience that their rival, Pakistan, was promoting "the export of terror".

On his trip to the US, a prime minister who has admitted to watching the film Where Eagles Dare 17 times told a Sky News interviewer that Britain had been a "junior partner" to the Americans fighting the Nazis in 1940. Oh, and he seems to think the Iranians already have a nuclear weapon.

Some of this is superficial; much of it is fam­iliar. It is significant nevertheless. Cameron's cheerleaders in the press may praise the Prime Minister's calm, natural confidence and relaxed style of leadership. Yet they have much less to say about his inattention to detail and his wavering focus. There is no point pretending that you want to "change our way of life" if you've left the office before 7pm each night.

I can't help but be reminded of George W Bush. He used to be asleep by 9pm every night. The original "compassionate conservative" would also demand that his aides provide a one-page summary at the front of any official report or document that he was asked to read. "[Bush] wasn't a detail man and he didn't like to ask too many questions," the former White House counterterrorism tsar Richard Clarke once told me.

Open goal for Labour

Dave is not Dubbya. The Prime Minister is a clever man and there is no doubting the intellectual calibre of the coalition cabinet as a whole. But some of the cleverest men in government - Gove, Huhne, Willetts, Laws - have been at the heart of the chaos. Big brains do not guarantee good judgement; on the contrary, they tend to breed arrogance, overconfidence and complacency.

So, it is not surprising that senior Labour figures have a spring in their step. "I've been telling all of the leadership candidates the same thing," says a former minister under Tony Blair. "We are facing an open goal." Cameron's personal poll ratings remain high but the Tory lead over Labour has dropped to 2 per cent, according to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, while a new ComRes survey reveals only 36 per cent of voters agree with the statement: "Britain is better off with a coalition government than it would have been if either the Conservatives or Labour had won the election outright."

The Tories' loyal army of columnists, bloggers and think-tank operatives has worked hard to deflect any criticism of Cameron's gaffes and the coalition's various U-turns and misjudgements. But that the honeymoon seems to be over so soon speaks volumes. The Prime Minister may have to slow down, focus and take charge. "Whatever the merits of Franklin D Roosevelt's 100 days in 1933," Vernon Bogdanor, Cameron's former tutor at Oxford University, once wrote, "its repetition by less distinguished practitioners has led only to disaster."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science