David Cameron is getting away with things Thatcher never could - Macleans.ca

David Cameron is getting away with things Thatcher never could

The Prime Minister is changing the way politics work in Britain

The right track?


In the spring of 2001, an aspiring politician scheduled a visit at the Witney and District Museum in England’s Oxfordshire County to drum up support among local residents for an election expected later that year. Stanley Jenkins, a curatorial adviser at the museum and a Labour Party supporter, made a brief note in the daybook: “Tory twit coming.”

The twit was David Cameron. He had a long association with the Conservative Party, including as a strategist and adviser at the Treasury and Home Office during the party’s last years in office. But he had failed to win a seat during the most recent election in 1997. He arrived at the Witney museum on a bleak and rainy day when it had few visitors. The party official who was supposed to be escorting Cameron around deserted him, leaving him alone with museum staff and time to kill.

“He was a nobody,” says Jenkins, “but we gave him a cup of tea.”

Jenkins’s cynicism about this unknown Tory was somewhat justified. It was a bleak time then for the Conservative Party. Prime Minister Tony Blair and his “New Labour” movement easily trounced Tory candidates during elections. The Conservatives hadn’t been able to shake their image, formed during Margaret Thatcher’s era, as the “nasty party.” They were seen as old, stodgy, class-obsessed, and out of touch with many Britons’ vision of themselves as forward thinking, socially liberal, and European. One Tory city councillor told Maclean’s none of his young friends voted Conservative in the 1990s, or at least admitted they did, because “it was like being rude at a dinner party.”

At the Witney museum that day, Cameron and Jenkins fell into a conversation about British political history, specifically the premiership of Benjamin Disraeli, who governed Britain in the late 1880s. Disraeli helped establish what has become known as “one-nation conservatism,” a brand of political thinking running through the left wing of the Tory party that tries to bridge class and other social divisions rather than exploit them for political gain. “His eyes just lit up,” says Jenkins, who, after a pause, adds, “He was a genuinely nice bloke.”

In that conversation there was a glimpse of the kind of strategy David Cameron would bring to his personal politics, and to the Conservative Party he would soon lead. At first glance, Cameron was not an obvious candidate to lead a party desperate to rebrand itself. He might have been young and stylish, but his whole life was steeped in privilege. He studied at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. He grew up in Peasemore, a Berkshire village that belongs on postcards, and probably is. Houses there have thatched roofs. The narrow roads are lined with blackberry bushes, and the local Fox and Hounds pub features fish and chips, except on Wednesdays when it’s curry. Peasemore “gave him good country living,” a villager who has known Cameron most of his life told Maclean’s, adding that Cameron was “a bright lad, who wanted to be prime minister since a very young age.”

Cameron never tried to hide this upbringing. He didn’t mask his posh accent or talk unconvincingly about the hard work he did on his uncle’s dairy farm as a teenager. But he knew the Conservatives would never again win power as long as voters linked the party primarily to the wealth and exclusivity that he grew up with.

Instead, Cameron tried to revive Benjamin Disraeli’s vision of one-nation conservatism and convince his party to change, first by electing him as leader in 2005, then by supporting him as he sought to reform it. “He started speaking with a different tone and a different language, and really tried to appeal to the centre-type liberal voters who we had lost,” says Mary Macleod, a Conservative MP for the London riding of Brentford and Iselworth, which swung to the Tories in 2010 after being held by Labour for 13 years.

“There were certainly people within the Conservative Party who struggled a bit with what David was saying,” Macleod says, “but what people began to realize was that if we want to win an election, we have to deal with the issues that are prevalent today. We can’t pretend that we are living in a century gone by. It was risky for him. We Conservatives have a history of getting rid of leaders very quickly when we don’t like them, and also of having strong opinions.”

Cameron took the risk. He portrayed himself as an environmentalist—sometimes clumsily, such as when he made a big to-do about cycling to work, while a limousine chauffeured his briefcase. He was socially liberal. He dropped the party’s obsession with opposing the European Union. It might be corrupt, sclerotic, and altogether foreign in the eyes of many British Tories, but banging on about it wasn’t going to win them any new votes.

He took his new Conservative Party into a national election campaign for the first time this spring. Cameron faced a weak opponent in Gordon Brown, who succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister after angling for the job most of the previous decade and then failed to impress anybody once he got it. But Labour was sitting on a large majority going into the election, and the Liberal Democrats—rarely a decisive factor in British politics—appeared to be surging. Winning outright would be a monumental task, and indeed when the results came in, though the Conservative Party won the most seats, they failed to secure a majority.

David Cameron retired that night to the New Inn, a pub in Witney owned by his friend and local Tory Martin Cornish, and a place the museum curator who once dismissed him as a twit now likes to drink. “I wouldn’t say he celebrated,” says Catherine Dunn, landlady at the pub and Cornish’s wife. “He had hoped to do better.”

In less than five years, Cameron had come from behind to win the leadership of the Conservative Party and had now taken it to the cusp of power. But he wasn’t there yet. He needed the backing of another party to secure a majority of seats in Parliament and form a government. With no other viable options, Cameron was forced to seek that support from the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, a party he had derided during the election campaign and one that had never before formed a government.

The Liberal Democrats “were like a lonely schoolboy in his bedroom imagining an ideal country, where he will be ruler and where everyone is happy because everything is fair,” Simon Hoggart, parliamentary sketch writer at the Guardian newspaper, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “And they confuse this with the real world. They never had to make compromises with power.” Now Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg found himself holding the key to power—and he decided to use it, striking a deal with Cameron that would see the formation of a formal coalition government, with Liberal Democrat ministers and Clegg as deputy prime minister. It was an unlikely partnership from the start, but both men were determined to portray it as friendly and functional.

Back inside Downing Street, however, there wasn’t much of a honeymoon. Cameron faced governing a debt-ridden country struggling with unemployment and fears of a faltering economic recovery. And all the while, he would have to hold together an implausible coalition whose unity would be necessary to carry out any of the reforms he envisioned.

A little restraint would have been understandable. Coalitions are defined by compromise, and compromise tends to blunt the edge of change. Cameron, instead, has been bold. A June budget promised some increased taxes but also massive cuts to government spending. Most departments will see their budgets slashed by a quarter, though health care is to be spared. There will be layoffs. Government departments will be expected to do less, to retreat from the everyday lives of Britons as power is decentralized and society is asked to take on responsibilities previously held by the state. “Where there has been caution about devolving power, there’s got to be trust,” Cameron told an audience of civil servants in July. “Where there has been an aversion to risk, there needs to be boldness. I’m telling you today that your job under this government is not to frustrate local people and local ideas, it is to enable them.”

Soon, parents may run schools, and police commissioners may be elected. Charities and businesses will be paid to help the unemployed find work. There will be fewer MPs. Where government does not shrink, it will be more transparent and less intrusive. Previously hidden data will be made public. Government departments will be required to publish “measurable milestones,” so their progress can be judged. ID cards are out, as is the previously planned next generation of biometric passports. What Cameron is proposing is the sort of shift in the way politics is done in Britain that comes about maybe once every generation.

“He’s pursuing an economic policy that Margaret Thatcher would have considered much more radical than her own—which she considered radical—in terms of public expenditure and cutting Britain’s deficit,” says Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “He’s pursuing economic policies most centre-right leaders in the world can only dream of.”

And while most politicians assume spending cuts will hurt their popularity—at least, they hope, in the short term—an August poll showed 44 per cent of Britons believe the coalition government is doing a good job securing the country’s economic recovery, versus 37 per cent who disapproved. “It’s going to be a very tough few years,” says Alex McCarey, a self-employed builder in Chiswick, in west London. “They have to do it. They’ve no choice. How are we going to pay this debt off? The Labour government, they never told the people who voted for them in three elections how much money they’re borrowing. Now it’s coming home to roost.”

Cameron has been helped by the general sense in Britain that the country is in the midst of a crisis and that everyone will have to take a few lumps for the greater good. Some maybe more than others. “One of the greatest myths that Cameron has managed to propagate is the idea of progressive cuts, that we’re all in this together,” says Charlie Beckett, director of Polis, a think tank at the London School of Economics. “It’s absolute rubbish. Of course the poorest are going to get hit hardest.”

Cameron has been helped in spreading his message by the Liberal Democrats’ inclusion in the coalition government. They have given him ideological cover. “From the Conservatives’ point of view, it is strangely useful,” says Beckett. “Having the Liberal Democrats there allows Cameron to say, ‘Look, this isn’t class war. This isn’t us trying to butcher the working classes.’ It gives that sense that this is a national government. It’s not the rough old Tories doing this. It’s not the old class-hatred thing. It’s the new Conservatives who are so public spirited that they’re running the government with these other chaps, the Liberal Democrats.”

Cameron’s personality also suits Britain’s sense of crisis. His predecessor, Gordon Brown, was an obsessive micromanager, gnawing his fingernails to the bloody quick and staying up until the small hours fretting over details he should have left to someone else. Brown’s own Labour ministers found him difficult to work with. It is impossible to imagine him in a functional working relationship with his political foes. Cameron is different.
“If you like, he’s a classic old-school English cricket captain,” says Beckett. “He’s somebody who picks the team, but he’s not going to tell you what to do, how to hold the bat or how to bowl.” This has allowed Cameron to field a team that includes his erstwhile opponents. It doesn’t run as smoothly as would one made up solely of Conservatives, but this too gives him a cushion in the eyes of the public. “They’ve built in a kind of suspension system,” says Beckett. The government can absorb bumps.

The Liberal Democrats, while thrilled to be part of a national government for the first time in their history, are getting less out of the arrangement than the Tories. Cameron did make concessions to bring them on board. A referendum is planned for next spring to end Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system in favour of an alternative in which voters rank candidates in order of preference. A bill proposing fixed-term Parliaments is currently working its way through Parliament. And there are areas where the two parties’ ideologies overlap. Both, for example, fear infringements by the state that restrict citizens’ civil liberties.

But the Liberal Democrats have given more than they’ve received. “They don’t seem to have succeeded in moving the Conservatives very far from the position they held during the election,” says John Curtice, a professor of politics at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. “There is a feeling that basically they’ve all ended up as the sheep that is clothing the Tory wolf.”

Liberal Democrat support has plummeted as a result, down about 10 points since the election. According to a poll released this month, almost four in 10 who backed the party in May would not vote for it now. This means Nick Clegg is in no position to pull out. And, despite some grumbling, it’s unlikely many Liberal Democrat MPs would want him to. Power is seductive, and having tasted it for the first time, Liberal Democrats in government are in no hurry to give it up. They can only hope those who once voted for them will grow more amenable to the compromises they’ve had to make.

Power also sweetens the bitterness of sharing it for Tory MPs. Cameron could still trigger an early election by arranging to lose a confidence vote in the House of Commons. But he would be foolish to do so. The Labour Party, even without a leader, is within striking distance of the Conservatives, four or five points back, according to recent polls. “What Cameron realized when he decided to go for the coalition is that he couldn’t presume that an early election would produce a majority,” says Curtice. “That get-out clause is not there for them.”

This doesn’t mean all Conservatives are comfortable in the coalition. Some MPs oppose the referendum on electoral reform, and threatened to derail legislation scheduling it. Other pundits on the ideological right of Cameron are disgusted by his willingness to deal with the Liberal Democrats at all. James Delingpole, a British author and columnist who knew Cameron at Oxford, describes the coalition as a “messy, ugly compromise” with a party full of “bigger fruit loops than anything you’d find in the Labour Party. They’re crypto-Communists, eco-fascists, and so on.”

Cameron, says Delingpole, is not a real Tory. He believes Cameron has pulled the party away from its roots, but that Conservatives eventually will rebel. “I can’t see Conservatives wearing what David Cameron has done for much longer,” he says. “Because although Cameron may be happy in the coalition, there are a lot of red-blooded Tories who have given over their lives to a job where they thought they would be able to promote Tory values and are suddenly having to compromise with those people whom they would despise most, those Liberal Democrats. I don’t think it can hold forever.”

Disaffected Tories like Delingpole, however, have nowhere else to go. “Like a lot of real Conservatives, I’m absolutely terrified,” he says. “Because of course one would wish that David Cameron was booted out of office, but the alternative if he was booted out would be absolutely worse.”

According to Travers, the LSE professor, some right-wing conservatives have deserted Cameron. But he says Cameron has compensated for this with gains made in the political centre, including from previous Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. The result is that, despite the unlikely nature of the coalition government he leads, Cameron is beginning his premiership in a strong position, and one that will become more secure once legislation on fixed-term Parliaments is passed. He has a five-year window to drive through his reforms. He may fail. There is a real danger that Cameron’s deep cuts will throttle Britain’s economic recovery. But he has chosen not to be timid. The United Kingdom will look different when he’s done.


David Cameron is getting away with things Thatcher never could

  1. Cameron: "Look this isn't class war. This isn't us trying to butcher the working classes."
    I guess that makes it OK then. Sure the working classes still end up butchered, but that is just an accident; a result of the natural order of things. Nobody is setting out with butchering front of mind. That would be barbaric. No, the ruling classes in the UK are much more sophisticated than that. They butcher through proxy.

    There is such furor in the chattering set of England, calling the Vatican a ficticious state with nefarious purposes in mind, yet their own statelette, the City of London, enjoys practically every benefit of statehood and continues its very real looting program with narry a peep.

    • If you don't like it, thank Labour. They ran Britain's finances into the gutter, leaving David Cameron with a HUGE mess to clean up.

      • You won't find me saying kind words about Labour either.

        • Some of the most recent news has the Labour Party vastly over-spending, and knowing it, in 2005.

          What, precisely, would you have had the Tories do? Simply ALLOW public finances to implode?

          If class warfare is being waged against the working and middle classes, it's Tony Blair's deferred class warfare.

          • What do you mean ALLOW public finances to implode… they already have. It is only accounting tricks that are Scotch taping the facade together.

            There is no saving the place. It has collapsed. The fallout will make the country toxic for years and years to come. Fools will look for someone else to blame, while they throw their grandmothers under the bus. All the while the source of their suffering and a good portion of the rest of the planet is situated in a few choice blocks of Briton's soil owned by some very old families and making a killing by looting value via duplicious financial transactions.

            If you are getting knotted up in a game of pin the blame on Labour, you aren't going to like my advice to Mr. Cameron.

          • Who needs to play a game of pin the tail on Labour? Labour is to blame.

            Even if Britain's finances HAD reached a full collapse, as opposed to simply being on the verge of complete collapse, there would be little different from what Cameron is doing now: raising taxes and cutting spending.

            He's already getting set to cut Whitehall's spending by 25%. What precisely are you looking for here? A cut of 50%? 75%?

            You aren't making a coherent argument.

          • Oh, you're a literalist. I can speak that dialect. Here goes…

            Britian is morally, culturally, and financially bankrupt. No nation gets out of that kind of mess by mearly by trimming government expenditures. The management of a bankrupt firm is removed and a new team to manage the re-organization is put in place. But Cameron is no Kirchner (Argentina) who stared down the banks and restored some semblance of order to his country.

            No? Not literal enough? Try this out: The UK is sunk, period.

          • So fair enough. You're finally making yourself clear.

            But what is it, precisely, that you think should be done?

            If the UK is morally, culturally and financially bankrupt you can't just blame it on the banks and call it that.

          • Uhh, why not? It is via that vehicle that most of the damage has been done. So, yes, the financial class is marked for a good portion of the blame. To be fair, they are not alone on the list.

            But as you insist on precision or what precisely should be done… The answer is to apply the principles of public health. Contain the infection. Make sure it doesn't spread to Canada. Offer support and what supplies we can. Search Canada from head to toe, leaving no corner unexamined for signs of the contagen. If found, isolate and irradicate. As their famous chef says, "Shut it down!"

            I don't think you grasp just how bad this is going to be.

          • I'm assuming "duplicious" was a typo. But I love it.

          • I hope being the source of your amusement doesn't turn into a career, but your welcome

          • Perhaps you've found your comparative advantage.

          • With today's free market conditions, I'm sure you'll catch up in no time.

            PS: a double entendre for free markets – business leaders and market condition theorizers are fond of making the call for "Free Markets" the overt meaning of which is to have markets with little regulation where market forces (damnation upon Adam Smith's invisible hand(s)) can obtain correct pricing free for the supposed drag of regulations.
            Alternate meaning – business leaders want a market for free, as in the framework of a market which they do not have to pay for. Soceity sholders the cost, owners pocket the profit.

            PPS: It is important to scale one's reference points, my use of business owner above refers to the scale of business: too big to fail. I am not against productive enterprises, aka business.

          • A fair point. It is particularly frustrating that many left-leaning types think that "big business" is a proponent of free (as in unfettered) markets. Big business very often looks to government (some people would say that big business and government are one and the same, they would not be unjustified) to help them retain their bigness with protections, regulations, and direct handouts. The history of government is the history of rent-seeking. As the great Frederic Bastiat wrote, "Government is the great fiction through which everyone endeavours to live at the expense of everyone else."

          • ColdStanding writes: Dissing government is the preferd vehicle to curry favour of a private patron by those word rich yet dollar poor.

            It is a good deal for the patron, he gets a steady stream of sophistic apologeta to dress up his naked agression against the common wealth. It is a good deal for the wordsmith, as he gets cushy digs, far superior to the garret, and an expense account to boot.

            It is a bad deal for everyone else as conditions which widely support real bodies are distorted to favour supporting fictitious bodies (that, despite their fictitious nature, have very real and very large appetites).

          • I see. So any writer who writes in favour of unfettered markets must be doing so only as propaganda for a "private patron". That someone could advocate free markets out of his or her own sense of what is just and most beneficial, is obviously impossible.

          • Tut, tut, inWord, you are clearly better read than I to be able to quote and attribute as you have done. I mearly wanted to try to pen a maxim. That I veered towards churlishness need but be chalked up to my ineptness with the form.

            If you aren't feeling too bruised after my rough handling, I will attempt to salvage what tattered remains of a thought that I was going after.

            Clearly it is possible for someone to freely come to believe in free markets when they hear such a conversation and become familiar with the reasoning behind it. If you would indulge me a re-read of my maxim, please note that I said it is the prefered vehicle… of the word rich yet dollar poor. Note how this does not indicate all, for I would certainly never accuse you of being a money grubing sell out.

            But it is a simple fact that there are more grant dollars available from free market advocating endowments than the contrary.

          • The fettered market advocates have the education system.

          • And you consider that an advantage?

          • To whom?

    • if by "working classes" you mean knuckle scraping morons on the 'shop floor', it wasn't any polotician who declared war, its those same working stiffs who have freely decided for the last decade or more to buy the cheapest products/clothes/cars/toys etc…. the 'working classes' (whatever that is????) have done it to themselves and are now paying the price

      • As I was quoting Mr. Cameron, I am working with his definition of working classes.

        I thought you "polotician" was clever. The rest needs work. I don't consider it cricket to establish conditions that actively seek to put the disadvantaged further in the gutter.

  2. Mr Petrou, this is a masterful report and I congratulate and thank you. The division between right and left in the UK is quite entrenched for historical reasons. In Canada, the division is equally profound, but for reasons of modern history. My take is that the thinkers behind the Pearson/Trudeau regimes coming as they did when the country was in its full flower of post WW 2 prosperity saw the chance to control the political agenda by applying socialistic principles masked as classical liberalism. One hopes Canada does not have to sink to the levels of penury of UK before it pulls itself out of the decline that is inevitable given the lavish government expenditures that pervail at all political levels everywhere across that land and which, barring temporary revenue windfalls from commodity price increases, will surely lead to bankruptcy.

  3. One of Cameron's problems seems to be that he wants to dress up his government as if it were a Labour government. Poverty czar, social mobility czar…

    Britons voted out Labour because they wanted a difference. Even Andy Burnham has admitted that Labour would have cut spending. So in reality the difference, to date, has been nil.

    • I think one difference between the Con-LD government and the would-be Lab-LD coalition might have been a greater emphasis on financial reform. When he was campaigning, Nick Clegg often talked about separating commercial and investment banking to try and contain risk in the finance sector. Gordon Brown wanted to tax international finance transactions to provide a fund for climate change adaptation and mitigation. ColdStanding is absolutely correct that the real winner of the election was the City of London, because the one other sector that the Tories are going to ignore: their chums in the City.

      • I credit you for your candour, but I couldn't agree with you two even if I were predisposed to. I'm just not find a coherent argument here.

        • P_R, who is arguing?

          • Either you OR Steve. Neither one of you are being terribly coherent right now. Think before you type.

  4. Different era, different outlook.

    And I guarantee you that in just a few short years, people will be welcoming Labour in again….with much the same words and hopes that the coalition is currently getting.

    Back and forth, back and forth….

    • Another brilliant insight from Emily, the sum of which suggests we should just stop caring. Or maybe kill ourselves.

      • Why is it that the truth always upsets you guys so much?

    • The same Labour party that has been spending and borrowing too much and has known as much since 2005?

      I wouldn't count on it.

      • Yup, the very same Labour Party….it will be hailed as the new messiah just like the Con party always is when it gets a turn.

        You should know how this works by now.

    • This is life in mature democracy with a sophisticated electorate.

      • When will THAT happen?

  5. What, precisely, did David Cameron get away with? Up against a tired and massively unpopular Labour government, he won a minority for all of his movement to the centre, with a lower share of the votes than Thatcher ever won. Moreover, while the article notes the declining fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, it fails to draw out this point. Enough Lib Dems have moved back to Labour that Cameron now sits in a tie.

    And as for Lib Dem loyalty to the coalition, we'll see how the referendum on electoral reform impacts that situation. Under PR, the Lib Dems could win the same number of seats as they presently hold with 10% of the vote.

    • The UK was very tired of unions.

  6. I love your reporting, Michael. Thank you for this.

    Disaffected Tories like Delingpole, however, have nowhere else to go. “Like a lot of real Conservatives, I'm absolutely terrified,” he says. “Because of course one would wish that David Cameron was booted out of office, but the alternative if he was booted out would be absolutely worse.”

    Any parallels over here in Canada, I wonder…

  7. Well written article and good sources – a range of views. Much appreciated.
    Cameron and Brown were on TED Talks and it changed my views of Cameron entirely. The media had me thinking he was a wet blanket but he is a modern thinker trying to get back to Britain's self enabled society, also bringing in technology. Brown was also a good speaker but wanted to focus on the poor of the world – a message that is lost on me when I see what a mess Labour has made getting such a huge percentage of Scottish people onto welfare. Now you have generations who do not know how to make a living – and are taking to alcohol.
    Why would a Brit want to stay and pay taxes to pay for welfare that gets drunk at the local pub? The British life was about modest living and neighbourhoods.
    Having parents get back to the schools, bringing control back to the local level and asking the govt to shift their thinking from interfering in lives to enabling lives is a great vision.