John Rentoul: The jelly PM may wobble yet

Cameron has been working hard to look connected, but he needs to shape up if he is to keep looking plausible
  • @johnrentoul

It is strange that David Cameron has been Prime Minister for 21 months and we still have so little notion of what kind of leader he is. Our ComRes opinion poll today finds that he tends to be seen as "out of touch with ordinary people" and not "good on the detail of policy". His supporters think that he has "strong moral principles" and is "patriotic", but the impression gained from these numbers is that the jelly has not yet set.

This is not for the want of trying on Cameron's part. Last week, he went to Newcastle to talk about alcohol, to Edinburgh to save the United Kingdom and to Paris so that he and Nicolas Sarkozy could "praise ties", as the BBC put it.

Yet the Prime Minister seems unformed. He is adroit at reacting to events, but not so good at making them happen. His most striking recent moment, saying no to the UK being part of the Eurozone Plus, was a mere standing aside from something that most of our European partners wanted to do.

He was hyperactive last week. So much so that Tim Montgomerie, the editor of Conservative Home, wondered if he were in danger of being "overexposed". The short answer to that is no. There is no such thing as above-it-all for a prime minister today. A Chancellor can do it, as Gordon Brown showed, and George Osborne is now copying him. But if Cameron took half-term week off to catch up on reading novels, as Harold Macmillan might have done, "lazy" and "lack of grip" would be the complimentary things written about him.

So a meeting in Downing Street about car insurance on Tuesday was flammed up as a "summit", as if the subliminal image of a mountain would make it interesting. A photograph and a soundbite at the Royal Infirmary hospital in Newcastle on Wednesday was promoted as a campaign against binge drinking – another terrible innovation of the English language, which makes drinking too much seem at once dramatic and impulsive, more serious and less serious at the same time.

The criticism is not hyperactivity but gesture politics. Car insurance premiums have gone up because people are increasingly likely to make claims. Some of this is to do with fraudulent whiplash, but most of it is a social trend towards assertiveness. Some of the insurance bosses summoned to No 10 had some wheezes for cutting some premiums, but, unless you change drivers' behaviour, cutting some premiums means putting others up. It is just about possible that teenagers might drive more carefully if there were "black boxes" in their cars, but Cameron's purpose was to show he cares about bills. It is kind of the Prime Minister to feel our pain and all that, but there is little he can do and even less that he should do.

As for the alcohol publicity stunt, there was if anything even less to it. Despite advance briefing that Cameron might support a law setting a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, he did no such thing. All he did was say that drinking too much was bad for you and people should rein it in a bit. Thanks a lot, Prime Minister.

Minimum pricing is controversial. The Scottish government plans to introduce it. Andrew Lansley, the English Health Secretary, is opposed to it. The Labour Party dislikes it because it would hit poor people worst, which, you might think, is an argument against any taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. If you are serious about discouraging alcohol consumption, minimum pricing merely takes the principle of taxing alcohol a little further. But it would seem that Cameron is not serious about problem drinking; he just wants a bit of symbolism to show, again, that he understands people's frustration with drunken hooliganism. Out of touch? Him? Perish the thought.

We know what his advisers are thinking. The last time 49 per cent of the voters thought a prime minister was "out of touch" was in May 1983, and it did not do Margaret Thatcher much harm as she won a landslide election. But when her score went up to 63 per cent in September 1990 she was gone two months later. Cameron does not want to speed up the replay of that story.

Thursday's speech in Edinburgh seemed a little more like taking the initiative. He was talking about Scottish independence after all, which, if it happened, would be a moment that history would notice. This was a big argument about the future of the nation, a speech with echoes of Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural, a rallying address for the Union and against Secession.

He did it quite well. The tone was good. He did not "talk down to people", although our poll suggests that 44 per cent of Scots think he usually does. He did not try to scare people with silly stories about Scotland being forced to adopt the euro, or the Scottish pound being a basket-case currency, as the Chancellor did. He sounded measured and respectful. Measured and respectful is what he does best, as with his much-praised apology for Bloody Sunday a month after he assumed office.

Yet the speech was essentially defensive. Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, is setting the tempo, and Cameron is responding to it. Cameron seems to have woken up one morning, around Christmas, and realised that he might be remembered as The Prime Minister Who Lost Scotland. So he decided to do something about it, and realised that the only sensible thing to do would be to say that the Scots should decide and to wonder politely why Salmond didn't get on with it.

His emollience is his strength. That was how he forged the coalition with Nick Clegg, and how he makes it work. It was how he and Sarkozy patched up the consequences of his defensive sidestepping of the Eurozone Plus deal. But Scotland, which as every schoolchild knows was Charles I's undoing the last time the Union was threatened, is his most severe test.;