Matthew Norman: Has Cameron's luck finally run out?

The PM has made an inexplicable howler by fighting with his MPs

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The Independent Online

In the current Bizarro World of British politics, where everything looks eerily similar but is profoundly different, you have to be crazy to make predictions. Not so long ago, it was easy to be cocksure. When Gordon Brown cluck-cluck-clucked up the snap election in the autumn of 2007, for example, you need not have been a sayer of the utmost sooth to declare that he was doomed. The second Nick Clegg cut his coalition deal it was clear that the Liberal Democrats were finished as an electoral force for a generation.

Alas, the age of certainties is passed. Today, no one knows how this economic crisis will pan out. To be more parochial, not even the bookies have a clue whether the next government will be Tory, a Tory-Lib Dem coalition, a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, or even a Labour majority. Ed Miliband, although regarded as a nerdsome irrelevance by the country, for now looks to be the rock-solid leader of a united parliamentary party. David Cameron, widely admired for his smooth touch and self-assurance, suddenly seems vulnerable at Westminster. Paradox stalks every corner of the political land.

For all that, I feel emboldened to ask this. Is this the week Mr Cameron's luck ran out? Until now, ever since seizing the leadership with a perfectly timed late run, he has led a charmed life and has dodged the bullets. In 2010, but for Mrs Duffy of Rochdale, he would probably have won fewer seats than Labour, and swiftly retired to his study with the brandy balloon and trusty Luger.

No one could deny that he parlayed that luck into the premiership with opportunistic brilliance, or that it has held in government until now. Despite consistently making the right calls, Milibandroid Jnr has proved a stylistic disaster. Mr Clegg obliterated his credibility over tuition fees and effectively became his captive. Liam Fox, his main internal threat from the unreconstructed right, self-destructed in hilarious fashion.

The danger about luck is that a long run of it tends to instill a sense of invulnerability, which breeds arrogance and recklessness. Mr Cameron's success in Libya, another morally decent campaign that threatened to go horribly wrong, may have played its part in emboldening him to fight that civil war skirmish over the Europe referendum. But even without dwelling on such similarities as a disabled father and having a fourth child while in office, the parallels with Mr Blair were always compelling enough.

Disliked and mistrusted by their own sides, having effectively hijacked a movement by bloodless coup d'état, both have appealed most to their party's natural enemies. Old-fashioned liberal lefties like me warmed to Cameron, or at least thawed, because he was so much less authoritarian than we expected of a Tory PM. Equally, surviving Blair fans tend to be right-wing Tories who could scarcely believe that a Labour leader was secretly (and eventually not so secretly) one of them.

Nowhere does the Blairite flame burn so brightly as in the upper reaches of the Cabinet, where the regnant trinity of Mr Cameron, George Osborne and Michael Gove openly worship the great peacock-charlatan of global statemanship. They reportedly read his chilling yet intriguing memoir, A Journey, on a loop as they hunt for secrets to his election-winning run. They are, bless them, besotted.

In this context, Mr Cameron's decision to challenge his party over such an arcane and nihilistically pointless Commons vote makes some sense. Blair was above all an oppositionalist, defining himself not by what he believed (whatever that may have been), but by contrast with those he opposed. He picked fights with his MPs and the unions on the cynical but logical grounds that this gave him dominion over the centre ground, while natural Labour voters would, by and large hold, their noses. For two elections, it worked a treat. By the third, the act was losing its allure, although he still won the kind of working majority that is the stuff of Mr Cameron's wettest dreams.

This is where Cameron's performance as Mr Blair's mirror image has broken down. Going to war with his back-bench critics and wider party over Europe, when he could been absent for a free vote that would have been widely ignored, was a classically Blairite ploy.

What he appeared to forget was that, not having a majority, disenchanted MPs who regard their leader as a sopping wet cuckoo befouling the Thatcherite nest were infinitely more dangerous to him than those who reviled his hero as a traitor to the memory of Attlee and Bevan were to Mr Blair. The vote itself will be quickly forgotten, but the perception of hubris in needlessly reopening an old schism will linger.

This has been an exceedingly bad week for the PM, not for any short-term opinion poll damage, but for implanting long-term doubts about his judgment. He asked for trouble from Nicolas Sarkozy, whose vicious rebuke to him for his impertinence in demanding a say over the euro rescue plan drew praise from, of all stout Eurosceptics, Norman Lamont. He asked for it again from his own backbenchers, 79 of whom who showed his babyish bully-boy tactics the contempt they deserved. Some of the gloss has been stripped from him, and you sometimes wonder what there is to Mr Cameron other than gloss. He made an inexplicable howler by acting tough from a position of weakness against the ideologically driven. As the poker legend Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson said, you have to be a real idiot to bluff all your chips against a player you know is sure to call you.

"Better to be lucky than good" is another old poker saw, and Napoleon agreed with that when it came to his generals. But when the luck runs out, there is no option but to follow Gary Player's advice: stop coasting and work harder to earn some more.

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