Two years, two David Camerons

by David Talbot

Another day, another big society re-launch. The surest sign that this government is in trouble is when they wheel out the big society for another spin round the news cycle.

It was all so different just three weeks ago. Then, a confident Cameron stood next to President Obama in the rose garden at the White House. Under the Washington sun the two leaders peppered each other with lavish praise. It harked back to the mood and setting of where this government began.

Almost two years before, Cameron strode out with the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, basking in the warmth of the Downing Street rose garden. The easy rapport between the two men was as self-evident as it was the government’ initial strength.

Though their first press conference has long-since passed into Westminster legend, the political significance is not to be underestimated; Cameron had risked his career – Clegg his party.

The 12th of May will see that modest milestone pass, two years to the day that Clegg and Cameron announced the creation of Britain’s first peacetime coalition since the 1930s. Cameron, against a visibly decaying Labour party, had failed to deliver an outright Conservative majority. At his weakest he had made a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to secure a parliamentary majority, and his position as Conservative leader.

He produced a masterful political coup, not so much a coalition as a political chokehold on the Liberal Democrats. He needed them badly, but never showed it. Without them he might have stumbled on for a few months, and then risked the uncertainty of another election.

Those few days must seem like a life time ago given the past two weeks. The Budget, the funding scandal and the manufactured fuel crisis have risked destroying years of work under project Cameron.

When he took over as Tory leader at the end of 2005, his barely disguised challenge was to shake off the image the Conservative party had as selfish, sleazy, moneyed individuals intoxicated by their wealth and nauseating in their arrogance. It had come to appal the electorate.

It was a predicament that had afflicted the Labour party in the 1980s and into the 1990s, with four election defeats in a row. Voters disliked the Labour party so much that Blair had to change its name. Cameron’s task lay not so much in new policies but in image and leadership plausibility.

Cameron’s early image-making worked. It was, and still is, easy to ridicule his gimmicks at home and overseas; the bike rides and husky trips, the tie-less outreach to rioting youths. But these are things that voters notice precisely because Tory leaders never used to do them. His strategy was to deliver a country that was at best lukewarm towards his party, and he almost did it.

Cameron has, until very recently, proved himself an adept handler of the coalition. He has a keen sense of political timing and a relaxed command of the public stage. He has behaved like a prime minister with a full majority and a full agenda.

The range and depth of his programme has been extensive – far more so than Blair’s in his first term. Whilst initially stressing that his job was to nurture the economy back to growth he has, in the process, pushed reform in health, education, welfare and housing that Labour had either bypassed or failed to do for over a decade. While much has been promised and precious little as yet delivered, for Cameron to have attacked them head-on, and in the first term of a minority government, is to his credit.

The past two weeks have seen the shine come off David Cameron and his Conservative party. Whilst in Washington, two weeks ago, and the Downing Street garden, two years ago, he oozed the persona of a man on top of British politics. The presentation of himself at both events had been one of unremitting plausibility as an occupant of Downing Street. But a process that Cameron has long been petrified of is now well underway: the re-toxification of the Tory brand.

Recovering Tory fortunes, which past party leaders did so little to achieve, was never going to be a bed of roses. But as the revelations deepen, and the anxiety grows and the polls slip, Cameron and his cohorts will be longing for those two excursions in the gardens an Atlantic apart. The years spent decontaminating the party, the calculation to go into coalition with the Liberal Democrats and the expanse of his legislative programme may well unravel within his first two years of office.

Many Conservatives may well come to the conclusion soon that it wasn’t only Clegg who risked his party two years ago.

David Talbot is a political consultant.

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4 Responses to “Two years, two David Camerons”

  1. Don Gately says:

    I doubt cameron is happy about this launch – the fund itself isn’t necessarily a bad idea but it was stuck with the BS label a year ago, before they quietly retired the brand.

    This launch was always scheduled to occur around now and it shows that cameron’s fortunes haven’t dipped across the last two years but specifically in the last year alone as 12 months ago the govt still didn’t understand the words “big society” were generally used as a punchline and the pause in the health reforms had yet to start.

    the big weakness about the tories under cameron for me is their management of policy. No 10 is incredibly weak and just doesn’t have a grip on what some of the depts are up to. The health reforms were just insane and shouldn’t have got this far, the home office are creating a crime commissioner but the MoJ are refusing to devolve budgets to them whilst pickles is creating community budgets pilots that are dependent on creating links from local govt activity to health, education and crime spending but have no regard to the new governance structures in those areas. And then there’s the mess that is the work programme – where the govt will inevitably have to bail out providers who bid far too low to enable them to actually deliver a service in this economic environment

    There’s a strong critique to be made here and a clear space for an alternative vision but fannying about buying sausage rolls isn’t helping us make that – cameron should be consigning the tories to another few terms out of office with this mess so why does it feel like we’re headed for another hung parliament


  2. swatntra says:

    .. and yet its not all gloom and doom for the Tory led Coalition. Yes the green shoots of recovery are emerging and we may have escaped double dip.
    The point is that Labour have a long struggle ahead; if the electorate were of the right mind then Labour should be confidently walking towards the ballot box. But who can trust the electorate these days? They are in a bolshsie mood and have a mind of their own.
    The Big Good Fair Society is an excellent idea. We need to encourage more self determination and self reliance and break away from this culture of dependency.
    This BS Bank could work but charities willbe bidding against it each other, and some will lose out and possibly fold.

  3. swatntra says:

    Despite what some commentators might tell you People actually vote for Coalitions. And they did this at the last GE. Nobody was particularly enthused with any of the 3 major Parties and so the decided that nobody was going to win and the Parties would have to work together. Next ime it migt be a Left Centre Coalition, thats us, or even a Grand Coalition like what happened in W Germany and thats us as well with the Tories. So we had better start getting our minds around Coalitions, because thats the future.

  4. Chris Kitcher says:

    Should the unthinkable happen of a Grand Coalition or a Labour/Tory coalition then its about time Labour started to get its head around some real socialist policies that would challenge the right wing ideology of the Liberals and the Tories.

    With Labour policy at the moment surrounded in an impenetrable mist they would be on very difficult grounds if they had to sell the policy to the public whilst at the same time playing an active role in government.

    Labour need clear policies now and start making the case for them well before any future election.

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