JAMES FORSYTH: Cameron's headless chickens are in for another roasting

It wasn't until just before midnight on Wednesday, less than 12 hours before George Osborne was due to stand up in the Commons, that the speech for the Autumn Statement was finished. 

The midnight oil was being burned because the Tories were acutely aware this was their chance to change the terms of the debate after an awful autumn dominated by Ed Miliband. 

Over the past two months, David Cameron and George Osborne have been the authors of much of the misfortune.

'Headless chickens': George Osborne and David Cameron are pictured at the House of Commons on Thursday

'Headless chickens': George Osborne and David Cameron are pictured at the House of Commons on Thursday

Rather than sticking to the economy, which is growing at a good clip, they’ve chased Miliband like headless chickens. 

Lynton Crosby, the straight-talking Australian hired by Cameron to run the Election campaign, has been immensely irritated by this.

He has said with increasing ferocity that the Tories shouldn’t play Miliband’s game. 

‘Lynton is making his frustration at their indiscipline very clear. He’s furious they keep wandering off on to Labour’s turf,’ says one figure involved in Tory strategy discussions. 

Irritated: Lynton Crosby has said that the Tories shouldn't play Ed Miliband's game

Irritated: Campaign chief Lynton Crosby has said that the Tories shouldn't play Miliband's game

On Thursday, you could see why. Osborne stuck to the script – the Tories have a long-term plan for the economy, which is working, but the job’s not done and Labour pose the biggest  risk to the recovery.

The result: the Tories had their best day in months and Labour were left floundering.

So, why don’t the Tories just stick to the plan? Well, one Downing Street source explains: ‘When you’re in the trenches and the other side keep lobbing stuff at you, you want to hit back.’ 

No 10 insiders say Crosby is also irritated by how much time the Government spends on its own peripheral issues.

Conservative campaign headquarters has identified six pivotal subjects: the economy, immigration, welfare, Europe, tax and crime.

But the Government’s news agenda is full of announcements, often trivial, on other questions. 

This criticism grates with many in Downing Street. One tartly complains: ‘Crosby’s not in government.’

They argue that it is unrealistic to think a party can stick purely to its core message while running the country. 

They grumble that it still has to look after issues and departments that aren’t political priorities.

As one influential figure puts it: ‘We still have to run the Department for International Development.’

Cameron’s other challenge is dealing with his increasingly assertive Coalition partner, Nick Clegg. In the past few months the Deputy Prime Minister has become ever more aggressive in his dealings with the Tories. 

Clegg has to show centre-left voters who have doubts about Labour, but don’t like the Tories, that he’s not just a Tory by another name.

Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg

Challenges: Cameron has experienced an awful autumn dominated by Ed Miliband (left), while also having to deal with his increasingly assertive Coalition partner Nick Clegg (right)

This means picking fights with his partners. As one bruised Tory observes: ‘He thinks the way to show he’s nobody’s fool is to punch hard and act aggressive.’ 

Despite Clegg’s attitude, there are grounds for Tory optimism.

The Treasury thinks wages will begin to rise faster than prices next autumn, which should draw some of the sting from Miliband’s attacks over the cost of living. 

The Labour leader will also find it harder to keep this offensive going now the energy companies have announced price rises. 

But if the Tories are to capitalise on the recovering economy, they’ll need the self-discipline to stick to the Crosby script.


Dave has to bloat for Britain

David Cameron was determined not to offend his hosts on his trip to China.

Having been put in the diplomatic deep freeze for meeting the Dalai Lama, Cameron wanted to show he was someone the Chinese could do business with.

So, when he was invited to a meal with Premier Li and then a banquet with President Jinping, he devoured the local delicacies on offer.

Tea break: David Cameron drinks with guides Jia Lan (left) and Wang Yu (right) in the city of Chengdu

Tea break: The Prime Minister drinks with guides Jia Lan (left) and Wang Yu (right) in the city of Chengdu

But, with the time difference, this meant that Cameron had consumed 13 courses by 10.30 in the morning, London time. The result: a Prime Minister complaining of feeling bloated.

But that’s what happens when you’re sent abroad to eat for your country.


The Labour leader might want to be a bit more careful about where he leaves things.

Two of David Cameron’s aides heading to the airport for the Prime Minister’s trip to China were surprised to find in the back of their car a sheaf of official-looking documents mentioning their boss.

But before they could read them, the eagle-eyed Government driver snatched them away, explaining they’d been left by a previous occupant of the vehicle: one Ed Miliband.


Balls is kicked by own side

Kicked by his own side: Ed Balls personifies Labour's economic credibility problem

Kicked by his own side: Ed Balls personifies Labour's economic credibility problem

Ed Balls's problem isn’t that he goes red when he shouts, but that he personifies Labour’s economic credibility problem.

With Ed Miliband in a far stronger position than he was this summer, Balls is now Labour’s weak link.

One figure influential with Miliband says about Balls: ‘When everything was going terribly, it didn’t matter.’ But now things are improving, it does.

Balls’s supporters have made much of how aggressively the Tories heckled him on Thursday.

What should worry Balls is not the noise from the other side, but the silence from his own.

One Labour MP usually sympathetic to him says: ‘We all didn’t know where to look. It was just awful.’

Miliband’s face during Balls’s performance suggested he shared this view.

It is worth remembering that Balls was not Miliband’s first choice for the job. He initially gave it to Alan Johnson, who then resigned for personal reasons.

It is also telling that Miliband has appointed two men who are not fans of Balls – Douglas Alexander and Spencer Livermore – to run the Election campaign.

Friends of this trio say that they have learned from what went wrong under Gordon Brown... and that Balls hasn’t.

One of the things keeping Balls in place is the lack of an obvious alternative.

But since Thursday, one Labour MP told me: ‘For  the first time, I can see Miliband going into the Election without Balls as Shadow Chancellor.’


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