Ed needs to answer the question Cameron can’t: why does he want to be PM

by Jonathan Todd

The front page of the Spectator Christmas special depicts Nick Clegg crushed between David Cameron’s foot and ice. This captures the conventional wisdom. Cameron is doing well out of the deal that created his government. Clegg isn’t; and Ed Miliband isn’t in sight. The Tories hover around 40 per cent. The Lib Dems have shrunk beneath 10 per cent. Labour leads these polls, but we are told that Miliband is insufficiently visible.

While Cameron may glide over the ice on The Spectator’s cover – just as he glided away from the bullets that Clegg took on tuition fees – this ice masks ideological differences in all three parties. The strategic questions are obvious. How should Cameron consolidate his dominance, Clegg recover and Miliband become more prominent? The answers, however, reveal deeper ideological fissures.

John Kampfner urges a bolder articulation of Clegg’s liberal beliefs in the face of the existential threat to his career and party:

“He has to produce a radical narrative that differs from the Tories’ ideological opposition to the notion of government as an economic actor, while maintaining his distance from the overtly statist instincts of Labour traditionalists”.

Clegg will campaign for AV, while his Tory ministerial colleagues defend the status quo. Kampfner demands, additionally, a full and distinctive articulation of liberal principles from Lib Dems in government.

The more principled Lib Dems have been thought those who stayed out of government, voted against tuition fees and who have been wooed by Miliband. Tim Farron leads this cadre from the backbenches, as Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee, leads what Tim Montgomerie calls mainstream Conservatives. Kampfner wants Clegg to prove that Lib Dem principles aren’t the exclusive preserve of the backbenches.

For Clegg to do this he needs more policy wins to justify his cohabitation with Cameron. However, these wins would threaten liberal conservatism, the counter point to mainstream conservatism. As a Cameronian minister put it to Daniel Finkelstein:

“The narrative might easily develop that anything progressive comes from the Lib Dems, and that is very dangerous to us”.

Liberal Conservatives, like Nike Boles, want Tory/Lib-Dem government to last into the next parliament. Maybe they see more to like in Clegg than Brady. However, the Conservative brand may retoxify (assuming it ever fully detoxifies) if they allow liberal conservatism to seem only capable of delivering progressive outcomes in combination with Cleggite liberalism. The Lib Dem ideological renewal that Kampfner wants is not, therefore, without risk for Cameroons. Particularly if this renewal combines with louder and more organised complaints from mainstream Conservatives about dilution of Conservative principles on tax, crime, immigration and Europe, the need for liberal Conservatives to flesh out a principled argument for continued Tory alignment with the Lib Dems may become more pressing.

Two-party government is unusual in this country. Two parties clearly setting out ideological differences in government is more unusual still. The likes of Farron and Brady may sit on the same side of the House but they are sure to make ideological arguments of quite different flavours over the next year. Kampfner illustrates the pressure Clegg is already under to demonstrate the ideological consistency of decisions taken in government. Cameronian ministers may come to face similar pressure. How will they react?

In last year’s Spectator Christmas special James Forsyth wrote:

“The most important thing Cameron should think about over Christmas is why he wants to be prime minister. As the Times — normally favourable to Mr Cameron — opined last week, he has not yet conveyed a clear sense of this to the public”.

The failure of the Conservatives to win an outright majority shows that Cameron never managed this. Abandonment of Conservative principles is unconvincingly blamed for this by mainstream Conservatives. Cameron displayed agility in forming a government having failed to secure a Conservative majority. But it remains bizarrely unclear why he wants to be prime minister. It may be out of belief in the same things as Brady. It may be out of belief in the same things as Clegg. Or does Cameron stand for a liberal Conservatism that is distinct from both Brady’s mainstream Conservatism and Clegg’s liberalism?

He seems likely to believe whatever is necessary for him to remain PM for as long as possible. Undoubtedly, there is scope for Miliband – leader of the most ideologically united of the three parties – to make mischief. He should build bridges with disenfranchised Lib Dems. And encourage the disgruntlement of mainstream Conservatives.

But, first, this Christmas, Miliband should answer the question that Cameron didn’t answer last Christmas: Why does he want to be prime minister? He doesn’t want to be prime minister to make unhappy Lib Dems feel better. He doesn’t want to be prime minister to resurrect policies rejected by voters in May.

He wants to be prime minister to prove that Labour’s best instincts are in tune with the best instincts of the British people. That when the native genius of these people combines with the liberating force of Labour government, great things happen. Finding a way of successfully communicating this, and embedding Labour’s authenticity, is a more important strategic challenge than the tactical games of pulling at the ties that bind the Tories and Lib Dems together. This is, fundamentally, about ideology.

Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist.

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