Editorial: A bad day as good news is buried

The only claim to the tenancy of No 10 is competence

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It was a bad day which buried good news when George Osborne had to pay for an upgrade to first class on a train and Andrew Mitchell finally resigned. As Downing Street pointed out, the press could have been reporting lower unemployment, inflation, borrowing, crime and NHS waiting lists. We could have been congratulating Theresa May, the Home Secretary, on blocking the extradition to America of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker. We could have commented further (as we did in this space last week) on how David Cameron seems to have put Alex Salmond on the defensive over Scottish independence.

But no. Because of this reversal of Whitehall's "good day to bury bad news" axiom, we are writing, again, about how the Government seems to lack direction and grip. This is not just a matter of the low comedy on the Pendolino and high drama of Mr Mitchell's resignation, but of the Prime Minister's announcement of a new law to limit energy bills on Wednesday.

In other words, this is not just a matter of how Mr Cameron responds to the unexpected, but of how he tries to take the initiative. He had not planned to announce new legislation at his weekly session in the Commons, but had apparently prepared a line to take in case the recent price rises came up. He knew that the Department of Energy and Climate Change was working on new rules to require companies to tell customers about their lowest tariff. So when he was asked a question by a Labour MP, this came out as "I can announce … that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers."

Rather than say he had misspoken, his staff insisted that this was government policy, even though the ministers responsible had no idea how to make it work. The policy implied that each company would have just one price for gas and another for electricity, which could well cost some customers more. Pressed the next day, Mr Cameron virtually admitted that the policy was a symbolic gesture: "I want to be on the side of hard-pressed, hard-working families who often struggle to pay energy bills."

It was almost as if a scriptwriter had been given Ed Miliband's conference speech soundbite as a brief: "Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out-of-touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, backof-the-envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this government?" No wonder the Labour leader crowed yesterday: "They've tried to prove me right." No wonder Mr Miliband's positive rating matches Mr Cameron's in our ComRes poll today, and his negative rating is lower.

This newspaper is, of course, ready to give the Prime Minister credit when things are going right. We recognise that last week's jobs figures were encouraging, even if there is a puzzling mismatch between them and statistics suggesting that we are only just emerging from the second stage of a double-dip recession.

However, The Independent on Sunday wonders about Mr Cameron's character. If Conservatism is a disposition, he is the embodiment of it, but beyond that does he believe in anything? The jury is still out, so for now, his chief claim to the tenancy of No 10 is competence, for which, you suspect, the voters would forgive him a lot. But last week he and his operation seemed determined to live up to Mr Miliband's pithy description.