The Eight Causes of David Cameron’s Local Difficulties

by George_East on May 22, 2013

david-cameronIt would, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, take a heart of stone not to roll around on the floor laughing at the Prime Minister’s current difficulties with his own Party. On Monday night, following a bruising weekend of headlines from swivelgate  David Cameron wrote to all of the Swivil Eyed Loonies Conservative Association Chairmen to assure them he wasn’t ‘sneering’ at them.  Yesterday he saw 127 Conservative MPs vote against the third reading of the Same Sex Marriage Bill, having had to rely on some deft maneuverings on the part of Yvette Cooper and the Labour Party on Monday to avoid the wrecking of the Bill by the Loughton amendment.

David Cameron has looked weak, buffeted by events and at the mercy of his own back benchers, who appear to treat him with contempt.   This is so far removed from 2005, when he was first elected Conservative Party leader, when the chastening fact of 3 election defeats saw a Tory Party willing to give Cameron a large degree of freedom to sketch out an alternative path from the failed re-heated Thatcherism which had gone down in flames in the 2001 and 2005 elections.

How has this happened?  The reasons are a mixture of deep psycho-structural problems in the Conservative Party and very real tactical and substantive failures by Cameron and his coterie.   In my view 8 broad reasons can be identified.  I discuss them briefly below.

1.    The Modernisation Project was a PR Stunt

In the early days of Cameron’s leadership he liked to describe himself as the ‘heir to Blair’.   There were a bunch of photo ops to soften the Conservative Party’s image: huskies, hoodies etc, and some rhetoric around moving on from Thatcherism and compassionate conservatism.

However, unlike Tony Blair (and there is a legitimate debate around whether Blair went too far), David Cameron never actually took his party on.   The make-over, the move away from Theresa May’s accurate description of the Conservative Party as the nasty party, was never anything more than a PR sheen.  There was no Clause IV moment.    It was all buff and sheen. Cameron conned the Westminster Village as they are always more interested in froth than substance, but with a radical right wing intake in 2010 (something that the Mandelson/Blair machine would never have allowed to happen), it was always going to come back to haunt him.

Instead of being the leader of a Post-Thatcherite New Conservative Party moulded by him, David Cameron instead became the prisoner of the uber-Thatcherites that are now the centre ground of a hard right Conservative Party.

2. Failure to Win the 2010 Election

At the height of the expenses scandal in 2009 with Gordon Brown’s Labour Party appealingly lurching from crisis to crisis, Brown’s personal popularity ratings showing him to be the most despised Prime Minister since records began and the economy suffering from the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the Tories looked like they were on for a 1997 style landslide.

It is hard to imagine a party entering into an election in more propitious circumstances.  And yet David Cameron failed to win.   The percentage of the vote his apparently detoxified party received was 36.9%, only 3% more than the thoroughly un-detoxified Michael Howard managed in 2005.   Even though this was 7% more than Labour achieved in its worst result since the disaster of 1983, there was still enough anti-Tory tactical voting out there (despite Gordon Brown) to deny the Tories an overall majority.

This failure has hung over Cameron from the beginning of this government.  Why should his Party take his authority seriously, when he fucked up the biggest gimme the Party has ever had.    It is one thing ‘modernising’ for power, another ‘modernising’ for Coalition.

And if he can’t win in 2010 in the middle of a financial crisis, against Gordon Brown and a tired and divided Labour government, how on earth is he to win in 2015?

3.    Osborne’s Failure

The centre piece of the government’s programme, the glue that holds it together in the words of the execrable Danny Alexander, is its austerity economic policy.  On coming to office and in its emergency budget in June 2010, George Osborne set out a policy of radical austerity.  It was said that this would result in the structural deficit being wiped out and debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling by the end of the Parliamentary term.  Neither of these things will happen.   Moreover since the government came to power GDP has flatlined, when the economy inherited was growing out of a recession in the way one would expect.

The failure of austerity economics is not a surprise as it was always economically illiterate.  However, it was widely accepted as necessary by the Westminster Village (many still cling to it) and Osborne, in his odious way, spent many of those early months bragging about the government’s policy.   Private sector jobs would more than make up for public sector jobs lost we were told,   the economy would grow more quickly as  business and consumer confidence returned.  None of this has happened.

A discredited Chancellor also means a discredited David Cameron, as the two men are politically joined at the hip.  It has also meant that the polls have remained in the doldrums as the economy remains overwhelmingly the number one issue among voters.    Had the economic policy been a success (which was in fact impossible) Cameron would be in a far stronger position, as he could point to a likely win in 2015.

4.    The Rise of UKIP

The rise of UKIP has had two effects on the Tory Party, both extremely destablising for David Cameron.

Firstly, the rise of UKIP has sown the seeds of panic amongst Tory MPs who are vulnerable to a UKIP surge.  An MP’s fear of losing his or her seat is always going to undermine confidence in the leadership, particularly when it appears that the leadership have no idea what to do about it.

Secondly, UKIP has provided a ‘king over the water’ problem for Cameron.  Many Tories look at Nigel Farage and see authentic non-metropolitan Toryism.   They hanker after his simplistic solutions to immigration, Europe, crime, tax and everything else.    If you have the stomach for it check out the Telegraph blogs or Conservative Home to see the difference in views amongst a section of Tory activists and supporters in how they see Cameron and Farage.

As UKIP goes up in the polls and the Tories slide, becoming more UKIPPy is seen by many inside and out of Parliament as the solution.   The fact that votes will be lost as a result does not appear to cross their mind.  Moreover in Conservative Home (and with Tim Montgomerie now editing the The Times’ comment pages) there is a very influential machine behind this view.   Montgomerie for example, genuinely appears to believe that there is a Tory landslide waiting to happen with a right wing manifesto which adopts much of the UKIP programme on immigration and Europe.

5.    The Thatcher Regicide

 This may seem crazy given it happened 23 years ago, but it still resonates within the Party and has been a large part of the cause of its divisions over the last couple of decades.  There is a belief that the elite within the Party (which are perceived not to have included the Lederene herself) will betray the grass roots.  This suspicion and a hankering after the mythological certainties of the Thatcher years are a powerful combination.

‘What would the Lady have done’ remains the touch stone question for most Tories.  And even though Thatcher was a successful politician precisely because, in reality, she was not as dogmatic as her image (and when she became as dogmatic with the poll tax her career quickly came to an end), the image of a steely eyed no-nonsense principled Prime Minister is a benchmark by which Cameron is constantly judged and against which he constantly fails.

 

6.    Metropolitana

Cameron is perceived by many in the Tory party to be part of a metropolitan elite (true) imposing his metropolitan liberal Guardianista values (false) on the Conservative Party and the country at large.

When push comes to shove this really comes down to gay marriage, which is the only example of anything vaguely liberal promoted by the Prime Minister.   The impact of this should not be under-estimated, but it has in reality come to be a symbol of something which because it is not true, is actually far harder for David Cameron to deal with.  Policies can be changed, impressions remain.

The essence of the government’s programme is uber-Thatcherism:  mass selling off of state assets (the NHS),  mass withdrawal of the state from service provisions (Academies, Free Schools, the NHS, the Probation Service) and swinging benefit cuts to the poorest and most vulnerable.  This should be a wet dream of a Thatcherite Tory programme.

The problem though I think is that Cameron does not use the rhetoric of Thatcher.  What many Tories hanker after is strident language as well as strident policies.   Where this is not forthcoming, they see wet metropolitan values, in reality Cameron more of a product of Tory Ruritania than Blairite Metropolitana.

7.    Appeasement

 With almost farcical regularity, pressure from the Tory backbenchers is met with a concession from David Cameron, which is designed to draw a line under thing.  However, like all appeasement strategies it simply results in the beneficiaries coming back for more.  It has not helped that at each stage the clueless fan boys of the Westminster Village have proclaimed David Cameron a genius on each occasion.

At the end of 2011 we had the absurdity of David Cameron vetoing a European Treaty for what it did not (and never would have) contained.  The other member states went ahead anyway.   This did not lead to the Anti-European loons shutting up, instead it started the call for a referendum bill.

In January 2013 when a referendum bill was conceded by David Cameron if the Tories win the next election, again he hoped it would draw a line under matters.  This was apparently thought by the Prime Minister to mean that UKIP’s guns had been spiked and that the whole Europe business could be put in a filing cabinet until 2015.    The Tory press hailed Cameron as a political titan.

Of course, all it actually did was embolden the anti-Europeans even more.  A referendum in 2017 to form part of the Tory manifesto was not certain enough.  As there was no immediate bill in the Queen’s Speech (even though it was opposed by the Lib Dems and in any even could  not possibly pass on current parliamentary numbers) the Tory nutters put down a motion of regret.

David Cameron, taking his government into Carry On territory, did a 180 degree turn while visiting the US on behalf of the EU, and announced that he would back a referendum bill through the Private Member’s Bill process and would impose a three line whip for Tory members.   This referendum bill has no prospect of passing and in any event even if passed could not bind a future government.    It was a manoeuvre designed solely to head off the motion of regret, which it singly failed to do, with 113 Tory MPs voting in its favour.

Weakness and concessions beget more weakness and concessions.

 

8.    Chumocracy

 In essence this is what the swivel eyed loons issues is about.  David Cameron has surrounded himself with a bunch of Old Etonians in whose company he feels comfortable.  It appears that everytime there is a vacancy at No 10, it is an Old Etonian who gets the call.

This has made David Cameron appear to be detached both from ordinary people and the bulk of the Tory Party.  But it is more than that, it has made him actually  detached   from the rest of the Party.   The activists see a group of remote, elite, chums running a Party which used to be theirs.  No thanks and no love is given.   Lord Feldman was given a peerage and the Co-Chairmanship of the Tory Party by David Cameron.   He is Cameron’s university tennis partner.

It may be odd to say it, but what Cameron really could do with now, is Andy Coulson.  A tabloid hack who came up the hard way with his ear to the ground, would have ensured that Swiveleye gate had never happened and that the impression and reality of a cosseted group of the elite running the show, would not have got a look in.

 

Whether yet another re-launch of David Cameron and his government as we saw this morning can turn things around, who knows?  But I wouldn’t bet on it.

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