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Andrew Grice

Andrew Grice: What's the problem – a lack of vision, or George Osborne?

Our Political Editor on why the Government has run

into such difficulty over the past few weeks

Conservative MPs are increasingly critical of David Cameron and his Downing Street operation, and Nick Clegg admitted in an interview with The Independent on Sunday that the Government is "in a rut". The Tories have slipped in the opinion polls. So why has the Government suddenly run into trouble in the past four weeks?


Conservative MPs are selling shares in the Chancellor, who was until recently widely seen as a brilliant political strategist and Mr Cameron's heir apparent. Last month's Budget has unravelled amid rows over the "granny tax" (unpopular on the doorsteps), the "pasty tax" and the ceiling on tax relief for donations to charities. Some critics claim that Mr Osborne, who often attends the twice-daily strategy meetings in No 10, is trying to do too much and should stick to his day job.



Mr Cameron has cut the number of party political advisers in No 10 because he believed the previous Labour Government had too many. However, this has increased the influence of civil servants, notably in the Policy Unit. It is harder for neutral officials to provide an early warning system about policies that might play badly with the public. Extensive opinion polling is carried out by Andrew Cooper, the strategy director, but this is not always cross-checked with policy proposals.



Some Tory insiders say the problem is not bad policies but the way the Government "sells" them. Craig Oliver, the former BBC executive who is No 10's director of communications, has secured good TV pictures for the Prime Minister but critics claim he lacks the nous of his predecessor Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor, about what will play badly in the newspapers and the Dog and Duck. Spin doctors diagnose a different problem, blaming blunders by ministers including Francis Maude, who sparked panic buying at petrol stations.



Mr Cameron has long worried that his Government lacked a defining mission other than reducing the deficit. Despite health, welfare and education reforms, he has struggled to map out an overarching theme for his administration. His "Big Society" flagship is seen as a small idea. His Conservative modernisation project has stalled. Allies say Mr Cameron is a pragmatist; critics say he is a technocrat without a clear set of beliefs.



Since the turn of the year, Mr Clegg has adopted a "differentiation" strategy in which the Lib Dems advertised their differences with the Tories and negotiated in public ahead of the Budget. Some Tory MPs say this has fuelled media reports about Coalition splits and given the impression that the Government lacks a coherent strategy and has lost its way.