Do Letwin's park antics and Fox's dubious holiday habits suggest a weirder government than usual?
By Ian Dunt Follow @IanDunt
Labour started calling the Conservatives out of touch well before they entered government. By the time the coalition was formed, 23 of the 29 Cabinet secretaries were worth over a million. With the public already cautious of the wealth and public school background of the Cabinet, being 'out of touch' isn’t just a Commons taunt – it's a serious political attack.
The impression that the government is populated with bumbling, upper-class twits doing shady deals with the old boys club on the side has been reinforced by today's front pages. Oliver Letwin's decision to dump government papers, some including counter-terrorism details and information about his constituents, in a park bin is just unthinkable. The policy adviser takes long walks around St James Park in the morning, when he reportedly reads letters for his secretary to transcribe later, so it's not as if he's walking specifically to the park specifically to dump the papers. But the photos of Letwin over the bin look like some cheap spy novel and have that unmistakeable whiff of sleaze to them. It’s entirely superficial of course, but then so was Neil Kinnock falling over on the beach. These images frame the public's attitude to political figures.
The Liam Fox story is far more serious. Every day we learn more about the wealthy right-wing forces funding Adam Werritty, strongly suggesting efforts were being made to side-step the official process so that shadowy donors can buy the ear of government ministers. Quite why you'd bother trying to make a right winger like Fox even more right wing is another matter. Those funds would have been better directed at someone with more centrist tendencies.
But the social effect of the scandal is just as damaging as its substance. Fox's business trip holidays with his strange friend reinforce the impression that politicians are a class apart, living lives that would be unthinkable to the man on the street. Werritty seemed to have no concept of money. It was merely deposited in a not-for-profit company, according to reports, where he occasionally used it to stay in five star luxury in various exotic locations.
This impression was perpetuated by Fox when he delivered a statement on the Commons this week, insisting there was nothing out of the ordinary in a minister arranging his timetable to coincide with his social life. This was a disingenuous response from a man who had taken a friend with him on 18 business trips in so many months. How could Werritty have the time to go on so many jollies, you might ask? How did he have the money? Fox's failure to properly answer these questions made the whole thing seem even weirder and infinitely more suspect.
David Cameron's confidence and competence masks many of these stories, but he is guilty of being out of touch as well. In a speech this week he suggested a £20,000 post-tax income (roughly the national average) was basically poverty. Last week, his speech to the Tory party conference had to be frantically rewritten when he planned to tell families to pay off the credit card bill, a demand that showed how little he appears to understand the average family's economic circumstances.
Usually, however, he is an asset not a weakness. His presentation inspires confidence, whether at the despatch box in the Commons or on the TV studio sofas. He cleverly uses his wife to link him to pop culture. On the Andrew Marr programme the other weekend he answered a question about recent Mercury prize winner PJ Harvey by saying Samantha had bought the album. Or take this response to the Telegraph on how he has his home computer system set up. "I'm very proud of the fact that I've got an iMac and I've got a speaker remotely linked without a wire, which I did myself. The cool thing is that I now control my iMac from the iPad, to play out through the speaker." The use of 'cool' is grating from the prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but the day-to-day normality of speaker wires and home PCs allows him make a connection with the public despite the Eton upbringing and vast wealth. Remember, this is the man who started his leadership with a video of him doing the washing up. His entire approach has been to dispel the notion of weird from the start.
Cameron's charisma shields the public from the oddity of many of his Cabinet secretaries, but some of his tactics could also exacerbate the problem.
Under New Labour it’s highly likely that Ken Clarke, Caroline Spelman, Andrew Lansley, Oliver Letwin and Liam Fox would have been sacked. Cameron is more cautious, and for good reason. Any reshuffle is a hugely delicate affair under coalition. Furthermore, the PM wants to appear strong and resolute in the face of media onslaughts.
It's a commendable strategy and it makes a welcome break from the frantic backstabbing and hostile briefings which typified New Labour's time in power, but it is coming under increased attack. Various Labour figures are increasingly using Cameron's refusal to sack Fox before the investigation is over as a sign of his weakness. That is a potentially ruinous accusation. Out of touch ministers plus government incompetence plus implied corruption plus dithering leadership is a dangerous combination which brings back memories of the John Major years.
In truth, the coalition government is weirder than most, in that its ministers are even further removed from the man on the street than their predecessors. Cameron will have to hope his measured approach to ministerial mistakes doesn't lose him his own reputation for competence as well.