Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

On the runs: David Cameron really loves to get stuck into a 'crisis'

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

After nearly four years as Prime Minister, David Cameron has gained a reputation for being good in a crisis.

His critics concede as much, but complain that he lets a situation get so bad that he has to get involved, then walks all over his ministers with a late policy change. It is called his "essay crisis" approach to leadership.

With the recent flooding in England, Cameron waited until the country was perilously close to national disaster and then suddenly popped up to declare that "money is no object".

"Crisis" is a fair way to describe the events of last week, when the High Court decision to halt the trial of John Downey over his alleged involvement in the Hyde Park bombing in 1982 brought the whole issue of on-the-run letters to public attention.

Cameron and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers must have known that the revelation that terror suspects had received assurances they would not be prosecuted would cause outrage across the country.

Both were in the Commons last Wednesday as the controversy raged. By the time Villiers rose at Northern Ireland questions, the situation had escalated thanks to the Speaker, who had granted an urgent question to the Attorney General on the Downey case.

Villiers stuck to the line that "a grave mistake was made" and the PSNI would carry out "an urgent check of all letters that were issued under the scheme to establish whether any further mistakes were made".

Ed Miliband either failed to sense the importance of the Downey case, or thought it was too late to change his PMQs plan.

While he wasted his six questions on floods and a circular argument about whether or not Cameron believes in climate change, Nigel Dodds pressed hard on the letters.

The Prime Minister repeated the "dreadful mistake" and "rapid factual review" lines Villiers had used earlier.

"Whatever happens, we have to stick to the principle that we are a country and a Government under the rule of law," he added, in the same manner that American politicians talk of motherhood and apple pie.

No doubt Cameron's team thought this, along with some words about the "anger and concern felt across the country", would stem the tide. They had not banked on Peter Robinson. The DUP had decided that a PSNI check of their files was not enough.

Robinson's threat to resign may have got a mixed reception in Belfast, but in London it meant that Cameron had to produce another of his "essay crisis" solutions.

With the story still dominating the news on Thursday, Cameron changed tack and announced that there was to be a judge-led inquiry.

An inquiry is the rabbit every prime minister can pull out of the hat when a crisis threatens to overrun the Government's agenda.

What Angela Merkel, sharing a Press conference with Cameron at Downing Street, made of all this, we may never know.

She was keener to talk about the EU – another looming "essay crisis" for the Prime Minister.

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