Cameron's "coasting" ministers

February 10, 2012
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It’s been a tough week for David Cameron. He has been on the end of a tabloid bashing over his government’s failure to deport the convicted hate preacher Abu Qatada and has been forced to deny that he wants his beleaguered Health Secretary to be "taken out and shot." If that were not enough, he then took a pummelling from Ed Miliband in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

Hardly surprising that he fled to Sweden yesterday to get away from it all.

The release of findings on the government’s commitment to reform from a centre-right think tank today would surely herald some positive press then? Not quite.

Labour’s leader used the Tory Reform Group to attack the Coalition during PMQs; now it is the turn of the similarly-named yet independent body Reform to twist the knife.

Their review of the best and worst reforming ministers strongly criticises Andrew Lansley’s troubled NHS bill and suggests that George Osborne and his team at the Treasury have been “going backwards.” There are also some harsh words for Michael Gove’s education reforms and Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit; both ministers are described as “coasting.”

Reform’s findings lambast the government for a series of u-turns during 2011. Their ire is directed in particular at the Prime Minister’s perceived volte-face over the NHS. Echoing Miliband’s best moment of this week’s PMQs, they attack Cameron for promising an end to top-down reorganisations and then proceeding with, yes, another top-down reorganisation. The results, according to the analysis, are an increase in waiting times and the withdrawal of services.

All pretty damning stuff. But was there any cause for Conservative cheer in Reform’s review? It commends the Coalition’s strategy of cuts to public spending, arguing that reductions in expenditure in conjunction with accelerated reform will lead to better public services. There is also praise for three ministers: Liam Fox, Kenneth Clarke and Theresa May. But the fact that Fox left the government in disgrace last year and that Clarke is hardly Cameron’s strongest ally will not have been lost on Number Ten. To say that the prime minister would have preferred the recipients of Reform’s praise and criticism to have been reversed is an understatement.

Two weeks ago David Cameron could do no wrong. Poll after poll put the Tories way ahead of the other parties, and Ed Miliband couldn’t catch a cold, yet alone a break. By contrast, this week could hardly have gone worse for the prime minister. The findings of Reform, normally considered a friend of the Conservative party, have done nothing to help. No wonder he was on the first plane out of the country.

Alexander Wickham is a freelance journalist and blogger. He has also written for The Independent and Total Politics. He tweets at @Wickham_A