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.

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