by Kevin Meagher
This July marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of the battle of Stalingrad, one of the key turning points of the second world war when the reckless German advance east was halted by the implacable might of the Soviet Union. Thus began the inexorable pushback to that bunker in Berlin.
David Cameron, a student of history, should take heed. He faces his own mini-Stalingrad, brought about by a combination of his ambition, hubris and receding good fortune.
But his enemy is more amorphous than the red army back in 1942. He grapples with three inter-connected problems, not one. The first is the on-going fragility of his coalition. His “formal” coalition partners, the Lib Dems, continue to flatline in the polls and desperately need to stamp their mark with policy concessions, hence their solo attempts to write the chancellor’s budget in recent days and wring concessions on the health bill yesterday.
But the prime minister’s “informal” coalition partner – his own party’s right-wing – is equally querulous. What is the point of being in power if you don’t get your own way? A theme former defence secretary Liam Fox rattled his sabre about on Sunday. Why should the Lib Dems get half the policy concessions when they only amount to a sixth of the coalition numbers, he whined. Why indeed?
These shaky foundations belie the Prime Minister’s second problem: the sheer ambition of his programme. It now seems a long time since those heady days when The Economist breathlessly talked of Cameron being “a radical force” establishing Britain as “the West’s test-tube”. That was only in August 2010, but like the German 6th Army, he is finding the reality of delivering change far harder than the promise of making it.
Education, social security, public spending, Europe, and, of course, the NHS; all have felt this government’s revolutionary fervour as it seeks to reshape the state from first principles. However the ramparts are still manned; victory is uncertain on any front.
The third problem he has is more existential: time and the vicissitudes of office. He is nearing the midway point of this parliament. David Cameron is still a relatively lucky politician, but all prime ministers see their energy and momentum drain away; his will too. Governing is not a linear exercise: Every scandal, mis-step or “event” takes you away from your core mission.
Even more prosaic changes are fraught with danger. Indeed, the astute Mike Smithson over at Political Betting pondered whether a hitch in getting Tory MPs to support the relatively marginal issue of House of Lords reform might compel Lib Dems to retaliate by scuppering the parliamentary boundary review, or even triggering an early general election.
So far there are few indicators that David Cameron regrets storming out of the pub, flinging off his coat after threatening to take on all comers outside. He should. A long, snaking queue of pugilists is taking him at his word. Every group of key public sector workers seems set against the government on one issue or another.
And not just usual suspects. It’s a pretty pass when bodies like the British Medical Association, Association of Chief Police Officers and National Association of Head Teachers are lining up against him. He not only specializes in upsetting general public sector workers, but the officer class too; the doctors, police superintendents and headteachers. And the business lobby is no happier, griping about the 50p top rate of tax as diesel prices hit a record high.
The truth is David Cameron has bitten off more than he can chew. He has foolishly sought a war on all fronts. As a result, he has a voluminous and impressive array of opponents. His ambition is too great. The laws of political physics apply to him in exactly the way they did to all his predecessors. It is all very well for Conservatives to see in Margaret Thatcher the epitome of the conviction leader, cutting and hacking her way through her political opponents. Few remember that she had the occasional pragmatic relapse.
She cannily backed-off closing coal mines and taking on the miners under the NUM’s wily former president Joe Gormley back in 1981; realising that with depleted coal stocks a miners’ strike was an unwinnable folly. By 1984, with coal stocks replenished and with a less adroit NUM leader in the shape of Arthur Scargill, it was, alas, another matter.
The argument should not be over-made; to make a general claim for Thatcher the pragmatist would be a bit too revisionist. Her monumental hubris is what eventually brought her crashing down, on, of all things, the reform of local government taxation. The lesson for David Cameron here is that obscure issues have the potential to hurt if you become inured to how they affect ordinary people. His Health and Social Care Bill – and the parlous handling of it – fits that bill.
So, if he’s smart, 2012 will become the year of the climbdown. The point where David Cameron takes stock and assesses what he really values and what ground he can live with surrendering. He should content himself that pragmatism is not the same as weakness. Some will accuse him of being more Heath than Thatcher – a leader who marches his troops to the top of the hill, only to march them down again. But it is surely better to revise his strategy than limit his longevity.
“If politicians lived on praise and thanks, they’d be forced into some other line of business” Ted Heath once warned. That is not to say that praise and thanks are unimportant, just in short supply – so no point eschewing them for the sake of it. There are only so many battles a prime minister can fight simultaneously. David Cameron has hit his limit and should turn back. If he fights to ‘the last man, the last bullet’ as Hitler urged his generals at Stalingrad, then his political demise will be just as assured.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.