David Cameron should be watching the French election very closely

French President and UMP candidate Nicolas Sarkozy speaks at his campaign headquarters Photo: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

One can argue about the value of polls, but there is no doubt they give us some interesting insights into the political story of the moment.

You would perhaps expect a left-wing challenger who is not considered charismatic by even some of his own supporters to score pretty well against a right-wing incumbent on issues relating to fairness, but to fail in the final analysis on the question of economic competence and who would make the best national leader. And this is indeed exactly what is happening in France in the battle between Hollande and Sarkozy.

Except that the Socialist challenger does not look like he is going to fail.

Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande greets supporters Credit: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Yes, he may be behind by quite some distance on the question of who has what it takes to be President (by 56 to 36 according to Yougov today), but the same poll suggests that he is actually likely to go on and win.

If David Cameron's MPs are not worried by this, they should be. Because a Hollande victory would explode the idea that the leadership issue alone is enough to carry the Tories to a majority at the next election.

David Cameron Credit: Reuters

There are two things going on in politics at the moment that seem to me to be significant.

The first is that Fleet Street hates the government. This is nothing unusual, you may say, but any reasonably objective historical perspective would suggest otherwise. Margaret Thatcher had plenty of support in the media, so (with the exception of the Daily Mail and perhaps the Telegraph) did Tony Blair. Even Gordon Brown enjoyed some sustenance, with the Murdoch papers sticking with him until close to the end and the Mail not always entirely unsympathetic.

But now, everyone is lining up to give Cameron a kicking. To read the papers, you'd think he had barely a friend left. This is partly to do with anger over Leveson and partly to do with the fact that many executives in the right-wing press find Cameron a little aloof and are anyway not entirely convinced he is really a Tory. On this front, Helena Bonham-Carter's suggestion over the weekend that he is 'not really a Conservative' and would be a Democrat if he were in America, probably hasn't helped.

In fact, the last time I can recall such universal hostility was when John Major was in power. And yet, David Cameron is clearly not Major and Fleet Street is not the country. So can this be dismissed as just mid-term froth?

John Major

Not entirely. It is true that most people do their level best to block out politics and when they zone back in properly in 2015, they may do so in an entirely different mood from the one the newspapers predict. But what is unusual about the government at the moment is the number of entirely foreseeable unforced errors it is making. Forget the farce surrounding Abu Qatada; that is quite honestly the kind of thing that happens to all governments (why do you think he is still here after ten years).

But the budget is a different matter. It is an iron rule of politics that those you take money from scream much louder than those you give it to. How could the government's media machine have failed to anticipate the attacks on the granny tax, the pasty tax and the charity tax? They leap off the page. If you don't have any money to give away, then don't give any away. Taking with one hand to give with the other is an absolute guarantee of bad headlines in almost all circumstances, let alone in the straightened times in which he live.

George Osborne with his Budget case outside 11 Downing Street Credit: Reuters

If the Chancellor felt he absolutely had to get rid of the 50p tax rate on economic grounds, then there were surely better ways to do even this. He could, for example, have said that he would only abolish it once the Treasury had proved that he was raising more money from the wealth taxes he was introducing.

Even today, Cameron was making errors. In an interview on the Today programme, he was bounced into saying that it would better if he didn't deal with people who avoided tax. But avoiding - as opposed to evading - tax is perfectly legal. Many rich people use some measures to mitigate their tax liabilities that the less well-off might consider suspect. So by all means say that you are going to look for ever more vigorous ways to tighten loopholes, but accepting that you should only do business with people who are as clean as a whistle on tax is an enormous hostage to fortune. I can hear hacks across Westminster grinding up a gear even as I write.

Andy Coulson Credit: Reuters

The irony is, of course, that a lot of this comes back to Andy Coulson. If they hadn't taken him on, they would probably not have ended up with Leveson and a press that was lined up quite so universally against them. But on the evidence of the past few months, they miss him.

We will be discussing these issues and more on my show tonight with Michael Heseltine, Christopher Meyer (who, before he was our man in Washington, was also Major's Press Secretary), Germaine Greer and Mariella Frostrup. Do join us.

The Agenda is on ITV1 at 10.35pm and you can tweet along by using the hashtag #ITVagenda.

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