The Week in Politics: Misery in the omnishambles

Fear and loathing: The government's misery in the omnishambles
Fear and loathing: The government's misery in the omnishambles
Ian Dunt By

Omni-shambles is the word of the month, although it still sounds wrong from a politician's lips. A shadow minister using a Thick of It joke is like a dad singing along to his daughter's pop song.

And yet it's impossible to find a better word. Everywhere you look, the fates conspire against the government. And even where there is no problem to be found, the media interprets it in the worst possible light for Cameron, Clegg and co.

Some events need no topspin. The local elections were simply a bloodbath. Tory officials spent the early half of the evening setting absurdly high benchmarks for a 'good' Labour performance (around 700 seats) only to see the party easily surpass them.

The idea that a Boris victory might provide a ray of sunshine was dispelled when the media decided that was a stain on David Cameron's reputation. After all, this Tory was able to buck the trend in Labour-dominated London, so why couldn't the prime minister manage the same thing nationally? Then Boris did his bit by throwing out some hurtful grenades at the PM, stressing that he'd won despite Downing Street's help. It’s a sign of how much trouble Cameron is in that even the victory of a Tory mayor is written up as a new leadership threat against him.

The whole thing worked Tory MPs up into a bit of a state. They've entirely forgotten they failed to win the election or that the Lib Dems have exercised only a moderate influence on the coalition government. Instead, they decided the elections were lost because they were not right-wing enough. One or two of them even mentioned gay marriage and, like magic, it disappeared from the Queen's Speech. This was particularly noticeable, given that only the most deluded of commentators would suggest gay marriage had cost the Tories the election.

The Tory and coalition pledge to put 0.7% aid spending in law was another victim. It all sounded a bit like red meat was being thrown to right-wing Tory backbenchers. If so, one ingredient was missing: Lords reform.

This major constitution change, which happened to appear in everyone's manifesto, was given a holding pattern in the Queen's Speech. There was nothing there we hadn't heard before. But there it was: present, accounted for. A government bill. Government bills, of course, can use the Parliament Act to force them through a rebellious House of Lords. But Cameron said it would only go through on the basis of parliamentary consensus. Quite the contradiction and not one the prime minster's spokesman was able to smooth over. There will certainly be trouble ahead. Labour made that clear when it demanded a referendum before accepting the parliamentary debate timetable. It couldn't care less, of course, but it knows vulnerability when it sees it and Ed Miliband needs a new NHS debacle to keep those PMQs performances up.

The coalition desperately tried to restart the government on Tuesday, one of those 'switch-it-on-and-off-again' tactics. It didn't work. Clegg and Cameron substituted the rose garden of two years earlier for the blue collar surroundings of a tractor factory. The backdrop of peeved, bored workers would have made any reasonable observer lose whatever faith he had left in the British economy. Cameron inadvisably branded austerity "another word for efficiency". Try telling that to the next unemployed person you meet. Both of them looked tired and strained.

It all took place amidst unmistakeable signs of an anti-austerity mood in Europe. Local elections in Italy saw mainstream parties rejected. Greece voted for the far-left Syriza as the second largest party, although efforts to create a government seemed doomed to failure. And in France the resolutely left-wing Francois Hollande ejected Nicolas Sarkozy from office. If Cameron thought European centre-right leaders who shared his economic beliefs were hard to deal with, he won't enjoy meeting the new lot.

Anything else? Why of course. Every day brought a new hammer blow to the coalition's credibility and competence. On Wednesday, the government flat out refused a court judgement demanding they publish the NHS risk register outlining the worst case scenario of their reforms. It was sinister, objectionable stuff. On Thursday they made a U-turn on a pre-existing U-turn on the kind of fighter jet Britain's military will use on its aircraft carriers. There's not even a word for that. An 'O' turn? Meanwhile, the public sector went on strike again, while the police went on a march outside Westminster. The police!

And then, at the end of the week, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks appeared at the Leveson inquiry. These were supposed to be dramatic denouements to a busy week - both were forced to resign their posts over the phone-hacking scandal, of course, so these were big fish. But Coulson kept his lips tightly sealed and the big news of the day turned out to be Leveson's subtle rebuke of the prime minister over Jeremy Hunt's future. Brooks was more revealing, but used her journalistic skills to deftly deflect attention by revealing that David Cameron signed off his texts to her with 'LOL, DC'. He meant 'lots of love', not 'laugh out loud'... The jokes, it is widely expected, are going to continue all weekend. In fact they've already started, as you can find in our Political Week on Twitter.


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