POLITICS
22/10/2012 17:45 BST

Prime Minister Insists He Is Focused On 'Big Picture' After 'Plebgate'

David Cameron has insisted that he will keep focusing on the "big picture" amid accusations that Downing Street is losing its grip.

The prime minister dismissed growing Tory criticism of the Number 10 machine in the wake of the "plebgate" row as "Kremlinology".

And he denied that the delayed resignation of chief whip Andrew Mitchell and the fiasco over chancellor George Osborne's train tickets showed the government was "out of touch".

David Cameron was on a visit to Wormwood Scrubs prison on Monday

"We need to focus on the big picture," Mr Cameron said. "What actually happened last week is that unemployment fell, inflation fell, waiting lists in our hospitals fell, crime fell, the right decision was made about Gary McKinnon.

"Those are the important things that are happening in an economy where we've created a million private sector jobs in the last two years.

"There will always be people that will go on endlessly about process and processology and Kremlinology and all the rest of it, what actually matters is what is happening out there."

Asked why it took a month for Mr Mitchell to quit after his notorious confrontation with police in Downing Street, Mr Cameron replied: "It's the easiest thing in the world as prime minister to just sack someone at the drop of a hat when something goes wrong.

"I thought the right thing to do was to make sure there was a proper apology.

"The police didn't want to take it further but it did become apparent he wasn't going to be able to do his job so the right conclusion was reached.

"It takes longer to discover whether someone can or can't do their job. It's much easier just to fire people, I actually think that is not the right approach."

The premier's comments, on a visit to HMP Wormwood Scrubs, came with No 10 under heavy fire from Conservatives for presentational failures and a lack of long-term strategy.

Party grandee Lord Tebbit waded into the row on Sunday by accusing ministers of incompetence for allowing themselves to be portrayed as "toffs".

"The abiding sin of the government is not that some ministers are rich, but that it seems unable to manage its affairs competently," the peer wrote in the Observer.

The prime minister defended his handling of the Andrew Mitchell affair

One of Mr Cameron's top aides has risked fuelling doubts by admitting most of his time is spent on "crisis management".

It emerged that Oliver Dowden, the PM's deputy chief of staff who oversees domestic policy, told an American public broadcaster last month that he was "surprised on a day-to-day basis" by the news agenda.

"Most of my time is spent on day-to-day crisis management - is the term we use," he said.

"We're not permanently in crisis, but dealing with the issues that arise on a day-to-day basis."

Mr Dowden - nicknamed "Olive" by colleagues - admitted he was "often surprised" by the headlines on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Of course, the first thing I do in the morning, if I'm not woken up by my very young children, I turn on the Today programme and hear what's going on," he said.

"Hopefully we will have some sense of what's coming up anyway, but often you'll get surprised by what's going on..."

Asked when he was last surprised, he replied: "I'm surprised on a day-to-day basis. There is no accounting for the conduct of individuals."

The prime minister's spokesman said: "I think all of us are surprised on occasion by precisely what is in the news."

He also refused to say whether Mr Mitchell would be taking the severance payment he is entitled to on leaving the government.

Pressed again on why four weeks ago it was right for Mr Mitchell to apologise and stay in his job and now it was right that he had resigned, Mr Cameron said "there was the bigger question of whether he was going to be able to do his job".

"The timeline, and the time it takes, that might be uncomfortable and difficult for politicians and government and all the rest of it, but in the end government is about doing the right thing, making the right decision, not just making the easy decision," Mr Cameron said.

It was always much easier simply to fire someone, he said.

"Never worry about the justice of it, just fire them, much easier. You've made your point, someone's fired, but that's actually not the right way to behave as prime minister."

Mr Cameron later said he did not want to follow in the footsteps of former prime minister Tony Blair by getting rid of controversial figures to appease the Parliamentary press pack at its daily lobby briefing.

He told ITV1's The Agenda: "It's never easy for your chief whip to leave the government. The decision I had to make right at the beginning was, was it right for him to apologise and did the police accept that apology and therefore could he get on and do his job? I took that decision.

"Some people would criticise that and say 'why not just sack him straight away?' I don't think that would have been the right thing to do. But obviously we found after a period of time he couldn't do his job so he had to resign. That's what happened. It doesn't fit in with the deadlines people want or the agenda people want. As we were saying about the BBC, sometimes these things do take a bit of time."