The Prime Minister's belated decision to send more troops to Afghanistan is all of a piece with his failure to anticipate the MPs' expenses row. Here's today's Journal column.
As the dust settles on the 2009 conference season, the key issues which will decide the 2010 general election are becoming clearer – some of them the kind which arise at every electoral battle, others unique to this contest.
There is, as ever, “the economy, stupid” – the central question on which most elections are won and lost, and on which, in all probability, this one will be too.
In terms of a strategy for plotting our way out of the recession, the two main parties are about even, the main differences of opinion being over precisely how and when to start cutting the £175bn budget deficit.
On the question of who was to blame for the meltdown, however, David Cameron’s Tories have an unassailable advantage, thanks largely to Gordon Brown’s hubristic claim to have “abolished boom and bust.”
Then there is the “leadership” issue – which in essence boils down the question of which of the two main party leaders is (a) the most likeable person, and (b) the most convincing Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron has always been way ahead of Mr Brown on the first point. But he is now beginning to overhaul him on the second too, after a conference which saw him set out his vision of post-recession Britain.
But beyond the perennial questions of who can best be trusted to run the economy and who will make the best leader, there have been two other issues in the headlines this week which also seem likely to have a big influence on the 2010 contest.
The first of these is of course the MPs’ expenses scandal. The second is the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.
It would have come as no great surprise to world-weary MPs to find the expenses issue making its way back onto the front pages as they returned to Westminster this week.
There has to be some question as to whether civil servant turned witchfinder general Sir Thomas Legge has been making the rules up as he goes along in his letters to MPs calling for sums claimed in respect of cleaning and gardening to be repaid.
But such is the public mood of anger towards our elected representatives at present, that, however ersatz Sir Thomas’s recommendations, no-one dare defy them - not least Messrs Cameron and Brown.
And so the list of political casualties from the scandal continues to grow, with Tory MP David Wiltshire the latest to be forced to walk the plank at Mr Cameron’s behest on Thursday.
Mr Cameron knows he is in a win-win situation when it comes to expenses. Whenever another Tory MP transgresses, it merely gives him another opportunity to look tough on sleaze.
At the same time, his party as a whole continues to benefit from the “anti-politics” mood thrown up by the whole affair, a mood which invariably harms the incumbent administration.
Mr Brown, by contrast, is on to a loser. He had one chance to claim the moral high ground on MPs’ expenses, namely by reforming the system before the full horror of the abuse came to light.
But he failed to take that opportunity, and ever since his calamitous YouTube video in which he announced a belated and half-hearted attempt at reform, he has been on the back foot.
It’s been a similar story with Afghanistan. This week, the Prime Minister announced that hundreds more British troops would be sent to the war zone – some six or seven months after they were initially requested by the military.
It really does beg the question why this was left to fester over the summer as the casualties in Helmand Province piled up and the issue became more and more politically toxic for Labour.
To do it at this late stage looks very much of a piece with Mr Brown’s response to the expenses scandal – an attempt to shut the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
Afghanistan. Expenses. Leadership. The economy. The sad truth for the Prime Minister is that on none of these key election issues is he currently holding what looks like a winning hand.