Leading article: Cameron's shaky grip

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The Independent Online

It is becoming harder to escape the growing realisation that the Prime Minister's supposed virtues might be vices. The collegiate chairman of the Cabinet, who delegates to his ministers and floats above the fray, is beginning to look like a broad-brush front man who has been forced into a series of U-turns to limit the damage caused by his inattention to detail. The well-meaning advocate of greater civic responsibility and collective sacrifice is beginning to look like someone who thinks that the Big Society is for the little people. The leader who wants to be the heir to Blair, but to learn from Tony Blair's self-confessed failure to press ahead with reform quickly enough in his first term, is beginning to look like someone urging his ministers to rush into changes that they have not thought through and about which he finds out too late.

Needless to say, the ability to admit a mistake and to reverse a foolish policy ought to be a strength in a politician. Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Rural Affairs, did as well as she could last week in ditching the plan to sell off public woodland. And no government can prevent public-relations disasters of this kind emerging from the bureaucracy or from the Department of Unintended Consequences. But there comes a point when the number of U-turns becomes a sign of weakness rather than of strength, and the compilation of climbdowns since the election that we report on today, suggests that the Prime Minister is close to reaching that point.

Meanwhile, the ambitious reform programmes in health, education and welfare are having a bumpy ride. The changes to the NHS seem to have taken David Cameron by surprise, almost as if he did not know what Andrew Lansley was up to until his brother-in-law, a cardiologist, got on the telephone to complain. And last week, Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, published a welfare reform Bill that drops one of the most important cuts in housing benefit (10 per cent for people unemployed for more than a year). It will also raise the average rate at which benefit is withdrawn for people who take low-paid work – which contradicts the declared intention to "make work pay".

Elsewhere in today's newspaper, we report on the trouble into which Mr Cameron's Big Society has run. His attempt to present himself as a conviction politician has faltered because so few members of his government seem to know what he means by it.

Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, had to be pressed repeatedly in a radio interview before he said: "Of course I support the concept of the Big Society." And our round-up of the contribution of Cabinet ministers to Mr Cameron's Big Idea, reveals not only a patchy record of volunteering but divergent views of what the concept means.

As our ComRes opinion poll suggested last week, most voters have a rather clearer idea – by a margin of two to one, if they think it means anything at all – that the Big Society is "merely a cover for spending cuts". Yet Mr Cameron seems to be rather touchy when confronted in a personal way with the impact of his policies.

As we report today, the plan to close nearly half the libraries in Oxfordshire, which includes his constituency, was abruptly halted and subjected to "review" by the county council last week. Whether the Prime Minister intervened personally, or whether zealous intermediaries acted on the "turbulent priest" principle, it looks as if some of us are more equal than others.

Mr Cameron's strength, that he seemed comfortable with the responsibility of leadership, is beginning to look like an arrogant sense of entitlement and a petulance about his personal reputation. The slogan, "We are all in it together," never very convincing, is beginning to look like a caddish joke at the expense of the majority.

The Independent on Sunday is not persuaded that Mr Cameron is an ideologically driven Thatcherite whose ruling purpose is to shrink the state. He may be, but it seems more likely that he does not in fact believe in much at all. We were once prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt over his claims to be greener than Gordon Brown's government. Since May, and with the exception of Heathrow, we have seen little evidence of the "greenest government ever" and the doubts have grown.

We are beginning to wonder whether the deeper, and just as worrying, truth is that the Prime Minister is simply somewhat incompetent.