Leading article: Mr Cameron, get a grip

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The Independent Online

The Conservative part of the Tory-led government started last week badly, when a newspaper sting caught one of its chief fund-raisers, Peter Cruddas, offering supper with the Camerons for cash. The attempt to brush off Mr Cruddas as a minor and inexperienced personage who was guilty only of "bluster" was not wholly convincing, but at least he was sacked within hours.

The story was damaging to David Cameron partly because it reinforced the message of the Budget a few days earlier, that the Conservatives are the party of the rich. Worse than that, the cut in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p in the pound on incomes over £150,000 suggested a government that was out of touch.

Indeed, several of the Budget measures helped to give this impression. The granny tax is a squeeze on pensioners on incomes of between £8,000 and £24,000 a year. (The giveaway phrase in the Budget speech was "no pensioner will lose in cash terms", which meant that they would lose from inflation, and that new pensioners would get less.) Our ComRes opinion poll today finds that 64 per cent disagree with it and only 21 per cent agree.

The imposition of VAT on hot takeaway food, the pasty tax, is even more unpopular, opposed by 71 per cent and supported by only 17 per cent. Both of these were puzzling decisions, given their high fuss-to-revenue ratio.

All of which adds to the view, expressed by Nadine Dorries, the disloyal Conservative MP, before the Budget, that "policy is being run by two public school boys who don't know what it's like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can't afford it".

So far, so damaging for the Conservative leadership. The Independent on Sunday does not agree with tax cuts for the rich and tax rises for those on lower incomes, and we think it a tactical mistake for the Tory party to retreat from the centre ground, but we should not be surprised when Mr Cameron and George Osborne reveal themselves to be (a) right wing and (b) posh.

What might have surprised some people, though, is what happened next. It started with 10 Downing Street briefing the newspapers that the Army was on standby in case petrol tanker drivers went on strike. As an aside, the Prime Minister's spokespeople said that people should take sensible precautions, which some newspapers took as advice to fill up with petrol. Enter Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister. Fresh from trying to minimise Mr Cameron's fund-raising dinners by describing them as "kitchen suppers", he gave an interview in which he used the words "garage" and "jerry can".

It is still not clear whether this was all part of some cunning Baldrick-style plan. Certainly some Conservative MPs seem to think it was a good idea to encourage car drivers and petrol stations to increase stocks, so that the unions would be in a weaker position if they did go on strike. If so, they know little about petrol distribution. Or it may have been that elements of Tory high command may have thought that talking up the possible strike would distract attention from the Budget and "cash for suppers" and draw attention to Labour's links to union vested interests. If so, their judgement is almost comically awry.

By urging drivers to buy more petrol and then, yesterday, not to, ministers have shown astonishing incompetence. This newspaper has said before that Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne are not as good at politics as they think they are. Mr Cameron's apparent likeability has carried all before it until now, but last week the gliding swan looked as if he were waddling in a puddle. The fuel crisis of 2000 was something of a turning point for Tony Blair: he never seemed to be quite so sure-footed after that. Last week's government-instigated panic-buying could do the same for his heir.

Mr Cameron's No 10 operation has been shown up as lamentable. Conservative commentators are baffled at best; and at worst utterly scathing, as the grandest high Tory, Charles Moore, showed in yesterday's Daily Telegraph. And, after a week in which the leader of the opposition suffered the humiliation of a by-election defeat by George Galloway, made worse by the fact that he did not see it coming, only Nick Clegg has any reason for an unobtrusive smirk of satisfaction.

That was the week, then, in which the Conservative Party went from being out of touch to being out of control. Mr Cameron, get a grip.