John Woodcock: Selective speeches will benefit PM

What to do when your trump card - the prime ministerial intervention - loses its guaranteed ability to cut through?

John Woodcock: on PM speeches
John Woodcock: on PM speeches

That is the question facing Downing Street this week after David Cameron's speech on the NHS was eclipsed by Chris Huhne, Liam Fox's leaked letter against defence cuts, and just about everything else.

It is quite funny, given their insistence that this health reform shambles results from a failure to communicate properly, rather than a wrong-headed policy.

But officials at Number 10 and the Department of Health will now be left scratching their heads about how they are going to pass the test they have set for themselves with their bizarre 'pause and reflect' exercise.

If you wish to avoid a speech plummeting down the running order, it is a good idea to give it substance rather than vague platitudes about liking hospitals. Airbrushing your Health Secretary from the picture rather than sending him out to bat also creates problems.

Yet the wider problem of diminishing returns will be familiar to the civil servant media types who stayed through the transition from Brown to Cameron.

In the early days of a premiership, every utterance from the new Prime Minister is treated as a game changer. But as the novelty wears off, that automatic right to your slot at the top of the bulletins disappears.

In Brown's case, it didn't help that he ended up commenting too often on relatively minor issues, devaluing not only his own currency but also that of the ministers who should have been taking the lead. The effect is felt right down the government food chain: secretaries of state begin to be pushed into slots their junior ministers should take, and the juniors don't get a look in at all - until something bad happens and they are told to go out and take the blame.

The Government is not in that level of difficulty yet, but it may soon find itself in a vicious circle where failure to command the news agenda creates pressure on the PM more often, diluting his impact still further.

Let us pray it resists that temptation - we could all do without a daily dose of Cameron Direct.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown

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