Without a Big Idea, Cameron Will Lose
The Prime Minister can handle the pressure of a crisis. But he has found it more difficult to set out a Conservative vision for Britain
Shortly after he became Prime Minister, Gordon Brown made a terrible mistake which resulted in one of the most delicious and unintentionally amusing episodes in recent British history. The events surrounding Brown’s “election that never was” also provided a valuable insight into the personality of David Cameron, the most infuriating of Tory leaders. It served to illustrate that the Tory leader is a gifted individual, someone with a strong survival instinct in a crisis, who has a maddening habit of relaxing after a comeback and then squandering his advantages.
Back in August and September 2007, Cameron came perilously close to destruction and showed what he is capable of in terms political management. The then newly installed Brown was riding high in the polls and being presented by newspapers usually unsympathetic to the Labour cause as a father of the nation whose supposed wisdom, experience and all-round reliability made him, it was claimed, a splendid contrast with his predecessor Tony Blair. During an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the countryside and the floods that hit Britain that summer, Brown floated on a tide of the media’s goodwill and public approval. So excited did his advisers become that they urged Brown to capitalise by calling an early general election to smash the opposition leader David Cameron and the Conservatives. Journalists were briefed by Labour that an election would take place that autumn. Momentum built, with the press reports fuelling confidence in the Brown circle, leading to further boastful briefings, more reports and a spiral of hubris.
Brown himself was unsure whether or not he wanted an early election. Having waited ten years to inherit the premiership from Blair, he had no desire to risk losing it a few months later. However, he was ahead in the polls and enjoying Tory discomfort. Winning a contest would earn him his own mandate and simultaneously crush the young Tory opposition leader. Unwisely, rather than announcing early, an uncertain Brown then allowed the speculation to run during his own party’s conference in Bournemouth and the Tory conference held the following week in Blackpool.
Indecision was to prove disastrous for Brown. Cameron — fearing defeat — had for weeks been orchestrating a fightback to avert an election. At the Tory conference the party faithful were duly rallied by speeches made by the then shadow Chancellor George Osborne, offering to dramatically reduce inheritance tax, and by Cameron himself taking the fight to Brown in impressive terms. The voters noticed, as was reflected when the polls crossed that week giving the Tories a lead. Brown, his bubble burst, had to announce that he would not after all be calling an election. Result: public humiliation.
What Brown and his acolytes had failed to factor in to their calculations was David Cameron. That summer they dismissed him as a boy sent to do a man’s job and in their excitement made an elementary error, forgetting that their ruthless opponent might not respond in the manner they anticipated.
Brown’s team was so sold on the idea that Cameron was a southern softie, a metropolitan liberal Tory lightweight and public relations puffball, that in their mania they failed to spot that he tends to do well in a serious crisis. Cameron is good at handling pressure; only a fool writes him off.
And yet, having fought his way back to contention Cameron then made a hash of the election campaign against the discredited Brown when it eventually came in 2010. In failing to articulate a clear sense of mission, or even to enunciate properly the party’s policies, Cameron baffled many of his own supporters and failed to win the election outright. It was as though he desired office without having a clear enough sense of what he wanted to do with power. He snuck in at the head of a coalition.
That cycle of comeback followed by unforced error, punctuated by bouts of confusion about what he believes, illustrated perfectly the perpetual problem with Cameron. A man who is capable of startling coup de theâtre and moments of bravery, who is comfortable in his own skin and confident in his ability, at other points falls back on sloppy thinking, rooted in a sense of entitlement, dud advice and complacency. It is this above all that makes him infuriating.
Even though his inconsistency and unwillingness to listen to unwelcome advice have riled parts of his party and caused periodic rebellions, the ramshackle approach has got Cameron a long way, through nine years as leader of his party, including four years as Prime Minister.
His record in government contains solid achievements in the field of education reform and changes to the welfare system. The economy is growing strongly, and if critics say it is not the perfect recovery then one must ask if perfection in these matters is really possible. At least, after six years dominated by the crash and its aftermath, there is hope and some confidence is returning.
By offering concessions to his Eurosceptic colleagues — often leaving it until it was almost too late — he has arrived at a position on the EU (renegotiation and then an in-out referendum by 2017) that has held his party together, although for how long remains to be seen.
On the debit side, Cameron has also been prepared to play dangerous games with the constitution, offering his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats all manner of concessions. The cockeyed plan to create an elected House of Lords was only seen off by a rebellion of Tory MPs. Defence — one of the core responsibilities of government that Tories are supposed to take seriously —has also been hacked as the budget for overseas aid has soared. In addition, the tax system has been distorted further by Osborne, with another two million aspirational Britons dragged into paying the higher 40p income tax rate.
It is on this mixed record — with the excitement of the recent European elections out of the way — that Cameron will go to the country next year. In normal circumstances, it would certainly be enough to secure him a majority in his own right. The Labour opposition is struggling badly, with a leader who has failed to convince the voters that he is prime ministerial material. Ed Miliband’s early musings on economic concentrations of power and monopolies in the energy market and banking were interesting, but his proposed solutions have invariably involved traditional left-wing price-fixing, high taxes and state micro-management.
If it were only a matter of beating the struggling Miliband, the Tories would be in business. But these are not normal circumstances. The traditional British party system appears to be breaking down, with neither of the two major parties seemingly capable of getting close to even 40 per cent of the vote.
UKIP has also emerged to pose an existential threat to the Tories. Even though support for the populist party will subside by the time of the next Westminster election, because some of its voters are using UKIP as a vehicle for protest, it will surely not fall back to the 3.1 per cent it scored at the last general election. This means there a danger of a semi-permanent split on the right in Britain in which it becomes impossible for a single party to assemble a winning coalition of conservative-inclined voters.
A true Tory revival would require persuading UKIP voters — who are angry about uncontrolled immigration, furious with the European Union and sceptical about globalisation and economic change — that they should join forces with more centrist voters and vote for Cameron. Sufficient numbers of voters might — just might — be persuaded to do this if they felt the Tories offered some great unifying national mission or a sense of vision. But with less than a year to go there is no sign that those in the Conservative leadership have it yet — or are even looking for it.
A party that is down to almost 100,000 members, that has no representation in large parts of Britain, looks almost unfit for purpose in such circumstances. Is it really capable of generating the ideas and policies that might underpin a conservative reinvigoration and rebirth of the Tories as a great national party? It looks highly unlikely in light of the current evidence.
Ask senior Conservatives about the manifesto, or what might be in it, and they tend to look vague. Someone (the policy board) is working on some stuff, they say, and they’re sure it will all be marvelous but, oh look, is that the time? Initially, I presumed that they were reluctant to be drawn because there were all manner of great ideas being worked up in secret on the tax system, or the next stage of education reform, or infrastructure, or defence. But no, they cannot even explain when asked what the broad themes might be. They don’t know.
Although the policy unit in Number 10 is working diligently under Jo Johnson and various think-tanks say they have ideas to offer, it hardly amounts to a conservative intellectual renaissance. The Tory modernisers’ latest wheeze, in the shape of a new document from the Bright Blue think-tank, is the legalisation of drugs, which seems at best a marginal idea in the context of the enormous economic and productivity challenges confronting the UK. The Tories look like a party that has run out of steam.
There will be a Conservative manifesto for 2015 eventually, of course there will. The only two Tory figures who are allowed to make decisions on these matters — Cameron and Osborne — will meet and task advisers with preparing a document. This is how they have always operated, relying on pragmatism and tactical manoeuvres to navigate their way round obstacles such as elections. It is not even that Cameron believes in nothing. His is an instinctive shire conservatism, which means he is suspicious of ideologues and ideas in general if they are expressed too forcefully. David Cameron’s biggest idea is that David Cameron should carry on governing.
To illustrate the point, a former government adviser recently described to me the meetings of Cameron’s coterie that are held to begin preparing his annual party conference speech: “Everyone has a drink and a jolly time and then there is always that moment when David leans back in his chair and says, now, what do I believe?”
It all smacks of drift and the complacency Number 10 claims to be at such pains to avoid. Indeed, the uninspiring Tory plan next time amounts to fighting on the coalition’s mixed record, relying on Cameron’s force of personality, which didn’t work in the 2010 election, and hoping that Labour’s extensive limitations swing it. This may even be sufficient to ensure the Tories get away with it against Miliband, which might be good enough for David Cameron, keeping him in Number 10 after 2015 at the head of another cursed coalition with what is left of the Lib Dems. For those of us hoping for a more energising and inspiring vision of how Britain might be improved and made more prosperous in the next decade or so, it is a pretty unimpressive offer.