In the days before David Cameron's conference speech, one of the key messages that he and his speechwriting team agonised most over was how to offer voters a vision of a brighter future. The Prime Minister had to be, said No 10 aides, more than just the plumber, a "Mr Fix-it", he needed to inspire optimism in the country beyond the hall in Manchester.
But, on the eve of the speech on Wednesday, it was another passage that perhaps should have been paid more attention: aides briefed journalists that Mr Cameron would say "all of us" – including households – needed to pay off our credit card debts. The line became a huge story overnight, raising serious questions over the Prime Minister's judgement. Economically, it was dangerous as it risked stifling Britain's already flatlining economic growth: 75 per cent of Britain's GDP is consumer spending. Politically, it made Mr Cameron sound patronising and out of touch with the millions of "squeezed middle" families struggling to pay their bills, let alone reduce their credit card balances.
The Mr Fix-It analogy seemed far from reality. The mishap, claimed some Westminster observers, highlighted drawbacks in the Downing Street operation – including his director of communications, Craig Oliver. But there was a more serious question: did it expose a fundamental lack of understanding from a millionaire prime minister at a time of economic gloom?
Since becoming Tory leader nearly six years ago, Mr Cameron has been feted as the answer to the Conservative Party's problems. Even his failure to win an outright majority last year against an unpopular Gordon Brown survived strong criticism.
During all three party conferences, cabinet ministers – Tory and Lib Dem – and Labour shadow ministers praised the Prime Minister's smooth handling of coalition government. Yet the credit cards incident has shaken that view. His speech was described by one commentator as "workaday". Mr Cameron, suffering from a sore throat, appeared a little bit too laid back as he stood at the lectern, even when talking about Britain's fighting spirit. Despite his renowned style and presence, it seemed as if he was not making the effort.
The PM started the week with an apology to women, yet it appeared to fall flat. He said sorry for telling Angela Eagle to "calm down, dear" and Nadine Dorries that she was "frustrated", insisting: "I'm not one of the lads." But, days later, Mr Cameron was at it again, with a joke alluding to Boris Johnson's affairs.
There are issues with the Downing Street operation, which can be traced back to the hiring of Andy Coulson. Mr Cameron said it was easy with hindsight to criticise his appointment, but this belies the fact that he failed to ask enough questions about the former newspaper editor's suitability for the job. Mr Coulson's successor, Mr Oliver, has not had an easy first year, and must take some blame for the way the briefing on the speech misfired. Mr Cameron's press secretary, Gabby Bertin, read out excerpts to political editors last Tuesday, although Mr Oliver and the No 10 pollster Andrew Cooper were also present. Yet the credit cards line was contained in the written handout – meaning it must have been signed off by everyone in the speechwriting team, including Mr Oliver, if not Mr Cameron himself.
There was the farcical scene of Mr Oliver and Steve Hilton being filmed apparently "nobbling" Andrew Tyrie, the respected Tory chairman of the Treasury committee, after the MP criticised Mr Cameron's economic strategy. The pictures – including Mr Oliver holding his hand up to try to block the cameraman – before Mr Tyrie was due to comment on George Osborne's speech were a PR disaster.
Even Ed Llewellyn, the Prime Minister's trusted chief of staff, has made mistakes. Sources claim that on the day this summer's riots spiralled out of control, Mr Llewellyn was informing Mr Cameron not to return from holiday because the police had it under control – when clearly they did not. It was only when pictures of Croydon burning were broadcast that the No 10 unit moved to bring the PM home.
In the polls, the Tories have spent most of this year behind Labour – a party that is starting from scratch on policy and with a leader that voters cannot relate to. In the North and among women, Mr Cameron's party is doing even worse. It is no wonder that the Tory message last week was to hug their Lib Dem coalition partners close. The last thing he wants, say aides, in a time of economic hardship, is to look right wing.
A Tory source claimed the strategy was "asymmetric warfare" with senior Lib Dems. While Chris Huhne, Tim Farron and Vince Cable used their conference speeches to poke fun at the Tories, their colleagues returned with love-bombing. One Tory cabinet member said: "We will harden our line by degrees before 2015. There will be a pre-election 'phoney war', as there always is. But by the run-up to polling day, it will be open warfare."
There was some deflection from the PM's performance: the "cat-flap", involving Home Secretary Theresa May and Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, which erupted on Tuesday. Yet even here, Mr Cameron is hamstrung: Nick Clegg, say cabinet sources, would not let Mr Clarke, a hero of the Tory left, be sacked.
Mr Cameron faces fresh difficulties when Parliament resumes tomorrow: the NHS Bill returns to the Lords, where Lib Dem peers are set to further water down the reforms.
Earlier this year, a study purported to claim that women become "invisible" when they reach 45. Mr Cameron, who turns 45 today, needs to make sure he returns to Parliament this week with a visible agenda; if not, he will face deepening unease about his premiership.
Are party shindigs too dear?
Lobbying firms spent thousands of pounds accrediting interns to "bum-sit" on the best seats in conference hotels for meetings between executives and MPs. Young staffers were accredited for party conferences just to reserve seating in hotel lobbies.
The disclosure will fuel calls for the party conference season to be scrapped as it has been overtaken by private companies and lobbyists. Some 7,000 out of the 11,000 passes sent out for the Tory conference were for journalists or lobbyists.
Last Sunday, a joint party held by the backbench 1922 Committee and the influential ConservativeHome website was sponsored by Peugeot. Party-goers had to listen to a 10-minute speech by a director of the car manufacturer before Defence Secretary Liam Fox addressed guests.
Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome, has calculated that ordinary party activists are priced out of attending. He said: "It costs the average person £722 to attend Tory conference. When we went to places like Blackpool people could stay in B&Bs for £20 a night, but Manchester is twice, three, four times the amount and that is not affordable for the average member."Reuse content