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Wanted – a Cabinet toughie

David Cameron needs an attack dog.

So says a peer whose reputation was forged in the heat of the whips office in John Major’s government, who I happened by in St James’s park this morning.

We talked through handling of the Hacking-gate and came to a few conclusions.

Cameron had looked as though he was getting a bit of a grip last week but has had one hand wrested off the steering wheel by Miliband in the last couple of days.

Miliband has done well. His side is ferocious in its attack on Murdoch and they have an easy script to follow. “It’s all bad; the police have done a terrible job; Brooks must go; let’s stop the takeover”. In this way he glosses over Labour’s abysmal failures of the past.

The coalition is constrained to a large degree. Anti-Murdoch feeling is just as intense. While Clegg has a bit of free rein to say Murdoch should withdraw, Jeremy Hunt has to check every word with government lawyers and follow process.

Cameron is stuck with his decision to take Andy Coulson to No 10 and that is a vulnerability – no doubt from time to time Miliband steals a look over his shoulder at Tom Baldwin and prays there is no Ashcroft moment.

The upshot is that there is no clear simple line for the coalition ( and its backbenchers) to take – I am sure that Cameron would like both his inquiries to get underway immediately but process dictates no. To every easy opposition hit there is no straightforward answer. No, everything is difficult – but that is because government is about following proper process.

The opposition suggest a bit of quick legislation to stop News Corporation doing something. The government says “ No – knee-jerk legislation to deal with a single company problem is always a bad idea.” The public sees the government being negative when in fact it is right. And such is the outrage over the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone that they react instantly.

Of course, all this comes with the territory and Cameron benefitted from it when he was in Opposition. Now as Prime Minister he must be thinking hard on what more he can do to wrest back the initiative. Lines are being honed this afternoon in preparation for PMQs tomorrow. This will be one of his most important performances.

Which brings me back to attack dogs. It all too often comes down to Cameron.
Where is his equivalent of Blair’s John Reid? Where is the Cabinet hard case who will tour the studios and remind the voters that all this happened on Labour’s watch?

John Major could rely on a few heavy hitters – Norman Fowler, Brian Mawhinney, Michael Howard, Michael Forsyth – would always put the boot into the opposition even if they had a few disagreements with the boss from time to time. Michael Heseltine could always administer the coup de grace with panache. There is none such in Cameron’s cabinet. And it shows.

No doubt Cameron will reflect on this on his summer hols.

In the meantime while we digest the trenchant John Yates, the uncharismatic Peter Clarke, the belligerent Andy Hayman and the woman who makes them all look second division, Sue Akers, there is only one safe prediction we can make.

For David Cameron 12.30pm tomorrow can’t come soon enough.

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