Sometimes I do feel sorry for politicians – of all creeds and colours. Sometimes it must feel like a totally thankless job.
But sometimes they don’t half make things tough for themselves.
Last week, as chaos descended on the country’s capital, David Cameron faced perhaps the first major ‘national crisis’ of his premiership.
Did he pass the test? Here are three reasons why I think his PR strategy last week failed to convince.
August is holiday season but as the strikes hit there was a deathly silence from the nation’s politicians.
Cameron did not return to the UK until Tuesday. He did not make a statement in public until Tuesday. And he did not chair a meeting of the country’s emergency council Cobra until Tuesday.
London mayor Boris Johnson had more of an excuse as he was on holiday in the US, but Cameron was only a few hours away on the continent.
This shows a lack of responsibility, a lack of leadership and an inability to properly read the public mood.
Hitting the police
Cameron’s main rhetorical riff when the Commons resumed temporarily on Thursday was to criticise the way the police handled the riots. Blaming the police for what happened was always going to be an easy and perhaps attractive route for Cameron to tred.
But it lacked foresight. At this stage, with riots still fresh in the mind for most, the only criticism coming out of the mouth of any politician should have been directed at the rioters themselves. The time for reflection would come later. (And I should add that the behaviour of some Labour politicians, using the chaos for political gain was also poorly thought through.)
That’s not to say the police are blameless. Much of what has happened last week was mismanaged. There was often a lack of effective communication and I fundamentally believe there are deep-rooted problems with the relationship between our security forces and the communities they are tasked with protecting. But this is another debate for another day, not at a time when most people were merely concerned about the level of protection they, their families and their homes would receive.
Social faux pas
The final mistake from Cameron was his attack on social media. While this perhaps pales into insignificance compared to the first two points, it was still a poor judgement call.
The premise that because the rioters used social media, the technology itself is therefore akin to a force of evil, is so fundamentally flawed it is embarrassing. While I might expect this lunacy from the Daily Mail and other right wing media, I thought educated politicians (and the advisers that work for them) might have more sense.
It seems not. Perhaps Cameron was still in holiday mode as he spewed all sorts of crazy in the commons on Thursday:
“Mr Speaker, everyone watching these horrific actions will be stuck by how they were organised via social media. Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. So we are working with the Police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”
I don’t like some of the topics and opinions that are aired as a result of social technologies, but that doesn’t mean any government has the right to reduce or restrict freedom of speech.
I hope this was Cameron trying to find (yet another scapegoat) for what has happened, rather than a sign of future Tory party policy.
A losing game
The public haven’t been fooled by Cameron’s PRing last week. A Guardian poll at the weekend found that only 30% thought he did a good job compared to 45% that support police chief Tim Godwin. A further 56% feel the police are currently understaffed. How different this could have been.
By panicing with stuttering, badly thought-through attacks on the police and social networks, Cameron has weakened his own position now and for the debates that are still to come.
So, a tough week for Cameron and, in an age where the media (both traditional, new and social) demand answers and reflection sooner rather than later, it would be legitimate for his staff to argue that he was faced with an impossible situation. But by acting quicker and in a way that resonated more with the man, woman and child on the street, I fail to believe there wouldn’t have been a better outcome for the Dave brand.