David Cameron intended this week to be a demonstration of politics as it should be, ministers and MPs carrying out the people's business by debating serious issues. The Commons was made to return for a September sitting, to show its usefulness and prepare the ground for the difficult times ahead. The Coalition would display unity of purpose by promoting its constitutional reforms, before heading for the all-important round of party conferences.
Instead, the Prime Minister is momentarily out of action, called away by the sudden death of his father, Ian, in France yesterday. His absence extends the paternity leave that was due to finish this week, and forced him to miss the first Prime Minister's Questions of the new session. Just when he should be re-emerging from an extended summer break to lead his Government, he is weighed down by bereavement for the "huge hero figure" he adored.Family must come first, as it always has done for the Prime Minister. But his presence is urgently needed by his party, to draw a line under a period of damaging media coverage that has left two of his most valued advisers compromised. There was compassion on display in the Commons yesterday, but this remains a difficult time for the Coalition.William Hague's judgment has been called into question by the appointment and subsequent resignation of his special adviser, Christopher Myers. The Foreign Secretary's statement denying the lurid rumours surrounding their relationship, and revealing the fertility difficulties he and his wife Ffion have suffered, earned him a mixture of sympathy and head-shaking from Conservative MPs. Most are baffled by his behaviour, while many fear that a Cabinet big beast has reduced himself to lame duck status at a time when his instinctive connection with the Tory party, and in particular voters in the North, makes him a vital member of the Coalition. No one questions the truthfulness of his account, but the Westminster market place is an unforgiving one, and his price has been markedly discounted. Mr Hague must use the party conference in Birmingham to remind us that he still has fight in his heart.For Andy Coulson the damage is less obvious, but no less threatening. He does not appear to be in any legal danger from the renewed interest in theNews of the World bugging affair. The Metropolitan Police shows no desire to be dragged into another politicised investigation, and no one has yet produced evidence against him that looks strong enough to satisfy a court. But Labour are running an effective mud-slinging operation which has so far produced a police pledge to interview Mr Coulson about the latest claims, a new inquiry by the Home Affairs Select Committee, and an offer from the Speaker of a Commons debate today on the allegations that under Mr Coulson's editorship the News of the World intercepted the telephone messages of politicians and celebrities. Not bad going for a party that is supposed to be recovering from a brutal defeat.As a result, the issue is in the headlines, and so far no amount of No 10 news engineering – including ordering the release of details of HM Revenue & Customs' mishandling of tax records – has provided sufficient distraction. Nick Clegg, standing in for the Prime Minister in the Commons yesterday, delivered a useful reminder of Labour's own inglorious relationship with the Murdoch empire by pointing out that the first person to call and offer sympathy when Mr Coulson resigned as editor at the height of the scandal was Gordon Brown. The then chancellor assured Mr Coulson that he had done the honourable thing and "would go on to do a worthwhile job". Mr Cameron can ill afford to have the man in charge of organising the Government's message appearing on the ten o'clock news night after night, with cameramen on his doorstep. At some point, resisting such attention is no longer worthwhile.Yet all this turbulence is nothing compared with what will hit the Coalition next month when George Osborne unveils his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) – at that point, all hell will break loose. "We are in a canoe paddling down the Zambezi, and Victoria Falls lie dead ahead. Once we've gone over the edge, none of this will matter," one leading Cameroon told me. The edge, for those at Westminster who worry about it, is the moment we discover just how bad the cuts are going to be. To judge by what Cabinet ministers and officials are saying, many worry that the Coalition has not done nearly enough to warn the public of the abyss into which the country is about to plunge. "If we have had a collective failure," one Cabinet minister says, "it is that we have underplayed the scale of the problem."The review itself is proceeding to the Chancellor's satisfaction. He describes it as "a funnel" – a decision-making process that gradually filters a giant mass of information and numbers down to some conclusions. Some major departments are about to settle their budgets, and there is so far no sign of incipient panic or a last-minute, Gordon Brown-style scramble.What is little understood about the spending review is that it will decide significant political issues which by themselves would normally deserve weeks or months of scrutiny and debate. Consider that in addition to the task of deciding final numbers, department by department, for a parliament's worth of spending, the CSR must also make policy decisions about how to fund higher education, how to reform benefits, how to shape the future of Britain's defence. Alone, these are each explosive issues that could bring down a government. To seek to resolve them in one great political moment is ambition on an impressive scale.From inside the machine, the tone is optimistic: health is settled, education is safe, the two sticking points of defence and welfare reform are close to being resolved. Outsiders are not so sure: they say the NHS is being pushed into an unnecessary turmoil of reform, that education changes have been too timid so far, that welfare cannot be usefully reformed without attacking universal benefits, and that defence cuts are about to relegate us to onlooker status on the world stage.The other consideration is the level of detail that can be expected from the CSR. Those wanting every cut to be spelled out down to the last by-pass and job centre will be disappointed. While each department will have its budget settled, and its priorities set, there will be months of further difficult decisions to come. Ministers mutter darkly about what 40 per cent cuts will mean. They worry that the voters and even MPs have yet to grasp what the public sector landscape will look like.How Coalition MPs will cope when they are caught between cuts and constituents is unknown. Whips fear that the new Tory intake in particular is marked by an independent streak. They learned on the campaign trail the trick of their new Lib Dem partners to be local champions dedicated to protecting local services. The Treasury is more optimistic that backbench independence will not translate into nimbyism. "People realise that we were elected on a platform to tackle the deficit and it would look odd if we shied away now," one source says.So things look unexpectedly tough for the Conservative leadership this week. The political narrative is running against them. But they shouldn't fret too much. It is going to get far, far worse.