The Cameron project has stalled

by David Talbot

The Cameron project is now in major crisis. When a smooth talking, young Conservative leader burst on to the British political since in late 2005 he talked a new language for the new Conservatives. The project had a clear-cut logic and sensibility.

After three election defeats the Conservatives could no longer content itself in its own obsessions, talking to nobody but itself and lecturing us on tax, immigration, law and order and Europe when most sane members of the British public had long since given up listening.

The approach drew unapologetically from New Labour. Cameron, for his many faults, was one of the few Conservatives who clearly understood that the Tory brand had become the central problem and that it had to be detoxified. Then, and only then, could the whole edifice be modernised, renewed and the long, slow reconnection with the voters begun. This is what led to Cameron’s most memorable moments in opposition.

The original appeal of Cameron’s leadership was that he would break with his party’s past. He was emphatically not a traditional conservative. So a party that was neither socially liberal, green nor redistributionist was forced to lump Cameron “hugging a hoody”, having photographs with huskies and engaging in wild talk about “sharing the proceeds of growth”.

It was all part of his bitter struggle to rid the “nasty party” image that he, and the public, so disliked. The trouble is, unlike New Labour, the game failed miserably for Cameron at the last general election. His party only managed to defeat Gordon Brown’s policy-less, self-obsessed, exhausted and divided administration by a mere 48 seats.

Ironically it was this failure to outright win the general election that provided Cameron with the biggest boon to his project. The coalition initially played into the long-term strategic positioning of the Cameroon project with the detoxification approach, whilst also drawing the sting out from wider Conservative anger at his failure to win with the, politically powerful, rallying call of governing “in the national interest”.

It also played rather neatly into the Conservative habit of dominating the British centre ground and posing the Labour party as a party of sectional, narrow interests. When Red Ed turned up Cameron probably couldn’t believe his luck.

But today project Cameron is stuttering to an innocuous halt. The problem for Cameron is that he never convinced a large part of his party of the need for change. Many of them think their problem is that he has not been conservative enough, much like New Labour’s critics who, with misty-eyes, lament that the party never offered the masses unfettered socialism.

Cameron has paid the price for attempting to renew his party. The Conservative’s modernising high tide has passed. The greatest cheer of late was when Cameron rather emptily vetoed the EU treaty. He has allowed himself to be drawn into a startlingly stupid NHS reorganisation and made a school boy error in cutting the top rate of tax.

Whatever the economic and political arguments, both have sent a powerful political message that the Tories are back and looking after their own. In wider economics, Cameron’s approach appears to be to strip back the public sector and pray for a private sector response. How very 1980s.

Ironically for Labour, a party never knowingly at ease with itself, a consensus is slowly emerging. We are seeing tentative signs of the emergence of “Milibanites” – those of the Blairite Right who are, just about, seeing shoots of promise in the younger brother’s programme.

But it is David Cameron’s project that is in danger of turning hopelessly incoherent, to the extent one would imagine even he is confused. On the fundamental strategic issue back in late 2005, Cameron was right. His party needed to come to terms with modern Britain. The process of changing his party has since lapsed into reverse. He now has the most serious problem in politics: not enough people in his own party believe in his project. If he can’t convince his party, come 2015 he won’t convince the people.

David Talbot is a political consultant


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10 Responses to “The Cameron project has stalled”

  1. swatantra says:

    Mid Term Blues, all round, for Dave Ed and the Electorate.
    Sometime political analysts need to get their heads around the fact that Parties must operate within the economic mores in thich they find themselves; its not always of their own choosing. But a brave try.

  2. Anon E Mouse says:

    “After three election defeats the Conservatives could no longer content itself in its own obsessions, talking to nobody but itself and lecturing us on tax, immigration, law and order and Europe when most sane members of the British public had long since given up listening”

    This is exactly why Cameron has blown and why this author is completely wrong in this article.

    People in the real world want to be out of Europe, have the borders shut and are sick of paying sky high taxes on electricity, VAT, fuel duty etc.

    On the day that Cameron actually starts behaving like a Tory and stops pandering to minority “trendies” then Labour is doomed…

  3. This is an intelligent and accurate analysis, David. Thank you for it.

    I would add some points that might be more keenly felt by Conservatives. It seems to me that the PM has been rubbish at the basics of party management. His backbenchers do not feel he pays any attention to them. This is not just a function of some of them not believing in the Cameron project but also that he and his Ministers rarely speak to them. This distant and aloof manner compounds the resentment that many Tory backbenchers continue to feel about Cameron’s handling of the expenses scandal, where it was felt that he allowed others to become public scapegoats for more minor indiscretions than he himself was guilty of. As one Tory put it to me, “I believe that there should be a penalty for treating colleagues as badly as he has”. At a fundamental level, he’s got problems not exclusively for political or ideological reasons but due to what are seen as matters of basic courtesy and decency.

    This is not to say that he hasn’t made political or ideological mistakes. Of course, he has. As I have written before, he doesn’t have the first clue as to why he wants to be PM, which results in his government lacking strategic direction. Oddly enough, the MP who he berated last week, Jesse Norman, is one of his MPs with the kind of ideas from which such direction might be forged. But, I suspect, Cameron hasn’t sought out these ideas: first, because, as I’ve noted, he doesn’t bother to speak to his backbenchers; second, and more basically, because he is a dilettante and hasn’t even realised that his government lacks direction, never mind actually doing something about it.

    The Jason Cowley profile in the New Statesman was wonderful but, while we may never be certain, such is the closed box that is Cameron, I strongly suspect we will be searching in vain for any deeper drives or motivations. His world is one of smug complacency and his government reflects this.

  4. swatantra

    Your comment doesn’t have quite the gravitas you clearly think it has. I didn’t argue that the economic situation equals Cameron’s current woes. But a brave try.

    Anon E Mouse

    Ah, yes. The *if only they weren’t more right wing* school of thought. I think I addressed this in my analysis, namely it is exactly the same of those critics of New Labour who still wish away for socialism. ’97, ’01 and ’05 should have taught most Tories (especially when trying the ‘dog whistle’ approach) that work is does not.

    Jonathan

    Thank you, very kind. And yes I agree with your analysis above. Cameron does have a party management problem that, I think, is a combination of his arrogant aloofness, the rigors of the Coalition that demands the presence of Lib Dem ministers, and his pendant for picking his mates.

  5. BenM says:

    @AnonEMouse

    “People in the real world want to be out of Europe, have the borders shut and are sick of paying sky high taxes on electricity, VAT, fuel duty etc.”

    Save for shutting the borders, which is knuckle-dragging BNP policy only, none of the rest of the policy portfolio you put forward here is met by voting Tory.

    Tories got us into Europe and signed the most federalising treaties in its history.

    Tories put VAT on utilities at 8pc, and Labour reduced this to 5%.

    Tories introduced the fuel tax escalator. Tories raised VAT to 20%, so hitting the poorest hardest.

    Voting Tory hits you in the pocket and slams the communities around us. As we are seeing now almost every day.

  6. madasafish says:

    Let’s see:

    But it is David Cameron’s project that is in danger of turning hopelessly incoherent, to the extent one would imagine even he is confused.

    There are two main themes:
    cutting the deficit
    and
    reforming welfare.

    The deficit is falling. Most people dislike the measures involved. What a surprise.
    What did the Tory voters expect? A period of tax cuts?

    Welfare reform is ongoing. The major plank – Universal welfare is at least a year away. So a work in progress.

    The LDs are panicking as their vote share has collapsed. What a surprise Vote LD and have higher benefits at no cost was their motto. Anyone who voted expecting that was naive.

    As for the Government not being right wing enough, yes: Hague was not right wing enough to win , Howard was even more right wing and look what he achieved.. very little.

    I speak with the benefit of age and cynicism having seen it all before.

    If you seriously think the Coalition is going to fail to achieve its objectives, then I would not like to be in power after them. After all, that implies a MAJOR financial crisis requiring urgent action to cut spending. Which labour Government has ever done that – apart from Jim Callaghan and look where it got him.

    Anyone in power in 2015 will have to have more of the same.. because there is really little choice. Which explains why Balls and Miliband don’t want to flesh out policies.. they know it.

  7. swatantra says:

    The ‘Project’ was ‘The Coalition’, and making it work.
    It seems Dave and Cleggy have just renewed their vows, despite grumblings from dissidents in both their Parties.
    Labour have never really understood ‘coalitions’ and until it does its not going to make much headway. Its the economic situation and the distrust the electorate has for all 3 Parties that brought this Coalition into being. Labour still doesn’t get it.

  8. BenM says:

    Madasafish says the deficit is falling.

    Well yes. No one said it wouldn’t.

    The debate has always been about how fast the fall and how bad the impact on the econony and society will be.

    In 2010 Osborne crowed that the deficit would be much lower today than it actually is.

    And there is the crux of the issue. Osborne is *missing* his deficit targets while wrecking the economy and the social struts that support it.

    This is why the Tories need to be booted from office pronto.

  9. Anon E Mouse says:

    David Talbot

    This country has never faced a more right wing government than that last one. Who supported the most right wing Republican president I can remember?

    Who invented more laws and jailed more people for longer than any other?

    If you want to get elected in this country you need to be right wing because no country given freedom to choose under normal economic circumstances would vote for a socialist party.

    When Cameron eventually realises people want the borders shut and to be out of the EU he will storm in at the next election….

  10. Anon E Mouse says:

    BenM

    Amazingly I agree. The greedy bankers, city slickers and spivs were rewarded by Labour like no government in history. Peter Mandelson positively advocated it.

    Yes taxes were lower under Labour and the Tories took us into Europe etc etc.

    But to call someone who wants to protect their country after the MASS immigration from the last useless government a “BNP” supporter insults every working class Labour voter in the country.

    If you actually believe that this country wants to be flooded with foreigners without being asked despite numerous promises from all parties then you need to join the real world.

    The problem with Labour being run by a tax avoiding millionaire who has never done a single days work in his life (other than for the countess toff Harriet Harman – “Harriet” – real working class name) is things get skewed to the stage where I think you actually believe the nonsense you post.

    Frightening….

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