have Madeleine McCann and the military got in common' Oh, and
universities, the National Health Service and forests'
Answer: They’re all issues on which David Cameron has hung a member of
his Cabinet out to dry and overruled the policy of a major Government
“U-turn if you want to”, Margaret Thatcher famously declared at the 1981
Conservative Party conference. “The lady’s not for turning.”
Well, the current Prime Minister is. And, it seems, David Cameron
doesn’t mind publicly humiliating a member of his Cabinet if he thinks
he or she has got it wrong.
Theresa May, Liam Fox, David Willetts, Andrew Lansley, Michael Gove and
Caroline Spelman – and a few more – have all been hung out to dry by the
Prime Minister and their policy abruptly overturned, leaving these poor
hapless secretaries of state to squirm in public, smile sheepishly and
fall into line behind the latest prime ministerial whim or edict.
But who is the most hapless Cabinet minister of all' Why, the Deputy
Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, of course.
“Doesn’t this mess on the NHS tell us all we need to know about this
Prime Minister'” Ed Miliband taunted Cameron in one of the Leader of the
Opposition’s better moments at Prime Minister’s Questions.
“He breaks his promises, he doesn’t think things through and then, when
the going gets tough, he dumps on his minister.”
Well, the last observation was pretty spot-on. But back to PMQs. Ed
hadn’t finished. “We have seen the Universities Minister being dumped on
for the tuition fees policy”, the Labour leader went on. “We see the
Schools Secretary being dumped on for his free schools policy and the
poor Deputy Prime Minister, he just gets dumped on every day of the
was certainly right about Clegg, too. And within just a few hours of
that taunt, there was further evidence. Shortly before PMQs, in a speech
to mark the first anniversary of the coalition, the Deputy Prime
Minister told supporters that the Liberal Democrats had curbed the
Tories and were a restraining influence in the coalition.
“You will see a strong liberal identity in a strong coalition
Government. You might even call it muscular liberalism”, he said,
borrowing a phrase used by David Cameron in what appeared to be an
attempt to mock the PM. Big mistake.
Later the same day – after telling MPs at PMQs “There’s only one party
you can trust on the NHS and it’s the one that I lead” – the PM told
Tory MPs at a meeting of the 1922 Committee: “We should not allow the
Liberal Democrats to pose as a moderating influence. We are the party of
the NHS. The pause in the reforms was my decision, not the Deputy Prime
Ouch. There was more to come. Ed Miliband’s taunt at PMQs was followed
by Cameron U-turns on the Madeleine McCann inquiry and a military
covenant written into law.
The Labour leader was bang on about the NHS and Cameron’s treatment of
the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley. When Lansley was forced to
announce the pause in the passage of the Government’s NHS legislation in
a House of Commons statement, I have rarely seen a more dejected,
humiliated or miserable Cabinet minister at the despatch box. How much
longer can Lansley continue to suffer the humiliation before he decides
he has had enough'
Two Cabinet colleagues, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and Culture
Secretary Jeremy Hunt, are already being tipped by Tory MPs to replace
Lansley. One conspiracy theory among Conservative MPs is that Hammond
will move to Health and dump the NHS reforms in his first act and
Lansley will move to Transport and dump the high-speed rail link in his
Nonsense, a senior Cabinet minister insisted to me. The Prime Minister
is the driving force behind the rail link, I was told. Really' In that
case, the cynic in me predicts that Cameron will eventually dump the
rail link and blame whoever is Transport Secretary at the time.
Tuition fees' David Willetts, the man MPs call “Two Brains” but who had
clearly left both of them at home that day, suggested in a most
cack-handed fashion that wealthy students could buy their way into top
Dear, oh dear. Whatever happened to social mobility' “That is not going
to happen, that’s not our policy”, said the Prime Minister with a steely
glint in his eye that suggested he was furious with “No Brains”, sorry,
“Two Brains”. “There is no question of people being able to buy their
way into university.”
Later, in the Commons, Willetts, too, looked thoroughly miserable and
humiliated, as he had to admit that he was wrong and the Prime Minister
And what of Michael Gove and free schools' Well, Cameron and Gove have
been at odds over the role of religion in these so-called “free schools”
– schools the Tories have proposed should be run by parents’ groups,
charities and trusts, that is. Michael Gove said religious groups such
as the Church of England, Roman Catholics or Muslims would not be able
to run them. Oh yes they could, said David Cameron. Which brings us to
the two most recent examples of Prime Ministerial hanging a minister out
Kate and Gerry McCann have been campaigning for years for a review of
the bungled investigation into their daughter Madeleine’s disappearance
in Portugal. It was a matter for the Portuguese authorities, the British
Yet within hours of a letter from Kate and Gerry to David Cameron
published in The Sun, coinciding – it should be said – with publication
of their book, they suddenly achieved a breakthrough.
Sky News, the McCanns’ spokesman, Clarence Mitchell, revealed that Kate
and Gerry had met the last three Home Secretaries, Theresa May, Alan
Johnson and Jacqui Smith. The Times also reported that a detailed report
recommending a full review of the Madeleine McCann case had been sitting
on the Home Secretary’s desk for almost a year.
was it dithering by Theresa May or political interference by the PM'
Lord Harris of Haringey, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Police
Authority and still a senior member, claimed Cameron was “driving a
coach and horses” through police protocol.
Then came Cameron’s pledge to enshrine the military covenant into law,
only days after Defence Secretary Liam Fox told Dermot Murnaghan on Sky
News it would merely be “recognised” in law. The Ministry of Defence, it
seems, was worried about a lot of expensive lawsuits being brought by
members of the Armed Forces if the covenant was given the full weight of
It’s claimed the military covenant was David Cameron’s ninth U-turn in
as many months, following the NHS reforms, school sports, school milk,
forestry sell-offs, rape anonymity, Bookstart, housing benefit cuts and
Maybe. Of those eight, the biggest public humiliation suffered by a
Cabinet minister at the hands of the Prime Minister was Caroline
Spelman’s grovelling apology to MPs after the forest sale fiasco. “I’m
sorry, we got this one wrong”, she said.
We, Caroline' Her humiliation began earlier, however, at Prime
Minister’s Questions when Ed Miliband asked Cameron whether he was happy
about the forest sell-off policy.
“The short answer to that is no”, Cameron replied, in an answer that
displayed both refreshing candour and brutal lack of respect for
Caroline Spelman. This was probably the most savage of all Cameron’s
public dumping on his Cabinet ministers.
can, however, can think of even more occasions when the PM has
undermined a senior colleague. Remember, for instance, last December
when Number 10 “slapped down” Ken Clarke over new sentencing guidelines
denounced as “soft” by Tory right-wingers'
I do. I was present when the “slapping down” was being administered by a
member of the Downing Street inner circle.
But in all these examples, from Madeleine to the military, is David
Cameron the hero or the villain for hanging Cabinet ministers out to dry
and performing swift U-turns'
I’d say that in most cases the Prime Minister’s judgement has been right
and he has rescued those hapless Secretaries of State from blundering
ahead with some barmy policies.
Who can argue that the forest sell-off was a good idea' Or that allowing
rich kids to get into university by the back door with the help of
daddy’s cheque book was anything other than a crackpot idea'
the military covenant, it’s hard to disagree with Labour’s Shadow
Defence Secretary, Jim Murphy, who says the Government has done the
right thing, but for the wrong reasons, giving in to the Royal British
Legion, MPs and the media.
I’m afraid I’m not convinced, however, about David Cameron’s
intervention on Madeleine McCann.
Jon Craig is Sky News’ chief political correspondent