If insanity can be defined as doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and the Conservative Party that made him its leader, aren’t all that innovative—merely lucid. And yet, for most of a decade before Cameron was elected party leader in 2005, Conservative Party members pinned their hopes on a succession of men who campaigned on issues, such as crime and suspicion of the European Union, that resonated with the party’s base but failed to expand its reach. In 2002, party chair Theresa May said the Conservatives were perceived as the “nasty party.” The term stuck, probably because she was right. “We were in danger of becoming an elderly debating society,” one Tory city councillor told Maclean’s.
David Cameron knew Conservatives had to change to win. He convinced the rest of the party with a speech at the Tory leadership convention, promising to fight for a “modern, compassionate conservatism,” and beating out the presumed favourite, veteran MP David Davis. Cameron then set about trying to decontaminate the Conservative Party brand nationwide by focusing on issues like the environment and letting old Tory obsessions such as fox hunting fall away. Riding his bike to work—albeit trailing a limousine carrying his briefcase—was transparent and hokey, but didn’t hurt.
The Conservatives entered the May 2010 general election with 140 fewer seats than the governing Labour Party. They made significant gains, but still fell 20 seats short of the 326 needed for an overall majority. David Cameron was therefore forced to form a coalition government with the third-place, and left-leaning, Liberal Democrats.
He no doubt would have preferred to be governing with a majority, but Cameron has used his ostensibly weak position of forced co-operation to his advantage. The Liberal Democrats provide Cameron’s Conservatives with ideological cover. “It gives that sense that it’s a national government,” says Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a think tank at the London School of Economics. The Tories need only point to their supposedly left-wing partners to demonstrate their own moderation.
The deal hasn’t worked out so well for the Liberal Democrats, and for Nick Clegg, the party’s leader and Britain’s deputy prime minister. Many who voted for the Liberal Democrats see its partnership with the Tories as a betrayal and are abandoning it. Support has plummeted since the election. “That’s kind of good news for Cameron,” says Beckett, “because it means Nick Clegg won’t cause too much trouble.”
He certainly hasn’t so far. Cameron has made a few compromises, such as agreeing to a referendum to change Britain’s voting system, but Cameron is clearly the dominant partner. He’s using that position to its fullest by making deep and broad cuts to government spending on everything from defence to welfare. Britain is in debt and its economy is wobbly. Cameron is therefore driven in part by a simple desire for fiscal restraint. But there’s more to it than that. Cameron believes in decentralizing power and wants citizens to take responsibility for jobs normally handled by the state—a goal he’s accomplishing by giving citizens greater influence over local schools and police, for example.
It’s part of what Cameron describes as a “Big Society,” in which power is shifted from “elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the streets.” “The Big Society,” he said, describing the idea in a speech in Liverpool this summer, “is about a huge culture change where people in their everyday lives, in their homes, their neighbourhoods, and their workplace don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face, but instead will feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.”
He can be persuasive. But critics who say Cameron is simply dressing up the knife he’s using to eviscerate Britain’s public sector have a point. Regardless of how they’re sold, the cuts will hurt. Cameron likes to say that he admires former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher but isn’t like her. He’s right in the sense that Thatcher was more openly partisan. Cameron, however, is pursuing an equally radical agenda.
What’s working in Cameron’s interest, at least for now, is the belief that the cuts are necessary. “He’s taking some bold steps that have to be made,” said Margaret Barnes, a bookstore owner in Cameron’s home riding of Witney. “We need someone to grab hold of the problems and get them sorted.”
Not everyone agrees, of course. Tens of thousands of students recently demonstrated in London to protest government plans to cut funding to universities, and to allow universities to almost triple tuition fees, from $5,400 to $14,750 a year. Some stormed a downtown building housing the Conservative Party headquarters, smashing its windows.
Still, many Britons are willing to give Cameron a chance and take the lumps that are coming in the hopes they might be worth it. Most polls show the Conservatives up slightly since the election—though also even with Labour, which has benefited from the Liberal Democrats’ collapse.
“We’ll go through, probably in the next two or three years, some tough times,” Mary Macleod, a newly elected Conservative MP told Maclean’s. “And then we’ll pull out of that. So it will be a rocky road and a difficult journey along the way. I think the change we deliver at the end of it will be as large as there’s ever been.”