What is it about journalists in the Westminster village? Having been close to the political scene for some twenty years, I have lost count of the amount of hyperbole that passes for serious commentary at the end of a difficult week for the government. The loss of the child benefit computer disc clearly ranks high in the civil service stupidity stakes; and nearly as high on the ministerial embarrassment stakes. But if the disc has not fallen into the hands of fraudsters, it is utterly absurd to compare the last week either to the petrol crisis of 2000, or particularly to Black Wednesday in terms of its long-term political impact. Jack Straw is right about that. Equally, the crisis at Northern Rock reflects (a) a rather risky business model and (b) a series of unpalatable choices for the Chancellor, but is hardly a sign of his incompetence.
That said, there is no question that the government has got itself into a hole. The polls are not good (though they are not as good for the Tories as they should be either and voters blame civil servants not ministers for the loss of the disc). And the silly decision to keep public options open on an autumn election has been compounded by an appearance of incompetence since. That's why the government needs to do two things.
First, it needs to be bolder in its approach to reform. The idea that you can get a clear message across while trying to be all things to all men hasn't worked. We have, for example, just had a Tory schools policy that is largely a carbon copy - with one or two exceptions - of government policy that is already in place. Yet the Tories are being allowed to appear to be brilliant innovators. It is time to shout not shirk from what the government is doing successfully and to worry more about winning over parents that silencing the teaching unions. The same applies across the government's policy agenda. Second, I hope reports in today's Observer are right and the PM is widening his circle of advice. He has good people in no 10, but he would benefit from a more open approach to policy development. And third, the government needs to find a narrative that shows how it is successfully delivering on a lot of fronts. The Prime Minister's delivery unit needs the sort of empowerment it had when it was first set up to ensure that policy is delivered, not just announced. That may produce guffaws from the government's opponents this weekend. But there is plenty of evidence around of successful delivery on once difficult areas of policy. Delivery matters as much as policy development.