David Cameron is a second rate Ted Heath

byJonathan Todd

I’m not the first person to compare David Cameron with Ted Heath. Iain Martin has made this parallel. Martin asked last year whether Philip Ziegler’s biography of Heath had been read in Downing Street.

“It should be. Ted Heath was a relentlessly pragmatic Tory leader who had poor relations with his party in Parliament and in the country. He began in government seemingly fixed on a clear course of reform and modernisation. But then he hit stormy waters and, lacking an ideological compass that might have helped guide him through, was blown over. Having failed to build good relations with his colleagues, he had no reservoir of loyalty on which to draw. When Margaret Thatcher emerged he was sunk.”

Heath, though, did have an objective for his government. He wanted to pacify the trade unions and draw them into a corporatist national project that would make us less like the US and more like France, not simply through being part of the common market, but also in terms of industrial policy and organisation. While one might have misgivings about this, it seems a more substantial project than whatever the defining purpose of Cameron’s government is.

A crisis reveals. The financial meltdown of 2008 revealed Gordon Brown to be a leader of global standing. (Have we seen much of this lately)? The crisis on our streets last week revealed the big society to be something that people just do. As the dust settled the little platoons came out with their brushes.

Something that people already do, seems an odd kind of project for a government. The argument might be made that the government’s point is to nurture and grow such behaviour. But the £2.8 billion of government spending that the voluntary and community sector will lose over the current spending review period is inconsistent with this goal.

While Cameron has even less of an ideological compass than Heath, in many other respects he seems remarkably like the prime minister described by Martin. Cameron, like Heath, has been too aloof to bother working on relations with backbench colleagues. This is most likely to catch up with a prime minister in difficult times. At the height of hackgate James Forsyth reported that a minister had told him that “Number 10 was having trouble getting people to go on TV to bat for the PM”.

Cameron has fair weather friends on the backbenches and growing tension at the top. Internal opponents have recently been briefing against Steve Hilton and leaking his zanier ideas. It is not clear who exactly these opponents are and what they seek to achieve. But this targeting of Hilton, synonymous with the big society, indicates a lack of confidence in high places in Cameron’s big idea and its guru. If Heath was blown over for lack of an ideological compass, Cameron must be at least as vulnerable to such a fate.

His operation has seemed less steady in the absence of Andy Coulson. But Coulson’s past means Cameron must now regret not following through with his initial plan to appoint Guto Harri. Rebekah Brooks intervened and insisted that the then opposition leader go with Coulson. So when aspiring to run the country Cameron considered his judgment subordinate to News International.

His relations with News International are one sense in which the question that came to define Heath hangs over Cameron: who runs the country?

The country has recently insisted that News International do not. Cameron’s deference to Brooks suggests he thought otherwise.

Max Weber defined a state in terms of a monopoly upon violence. So what was the UK when Cameron was sunning himself in Tuscany?

Ministers and police could then not agree on which of them prised the looters monopolisation from them. Now they can’t agree on the utility of the US policing advisor drafted in by Cameron.

The prime minister has also failed to come to an effective agreement with the bankers on their lending. They continue to enjoy backing from the taxpayer but won’t bend to the will of the government.

The extent to which the looters, the police and the bankers run the country isn’t clear. But it’s less obvious than it should be that the prime minister is in charge. Heath got his answer at the ballot box, “not you, mate”. If Cameron were mad enough to now trigger a general election on the same terms, his only saving grace may be the strength of his narrative on the deficit.

This story is of Labour recklessness and Cameron riding to the rescue with tough medicine. The robust return to economic health that we were told this medicine would deliver seems as distant as ever. But Cameron has succeeded in embedding a perception that Labour will tax punitively to spend wastefully.

If Labour can defeat this perception, what is keeping a second rate Ted Heath in Downing Street beyond the next election?

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

Tags: , , , ,

6 Responses to “David Cameron is a second rate Ted Heath”

  1. John Shepherd says:

    Jonathan Todd is a second-rate Polly Toynbee

  2. Denis macshane says:

    Check spectator column c. 2006 where I compared Cameron to Heath. The similarities between the current era and 1970s are remarkable.

  3. John – Thank you. There are worse things.

    Denis – Thank you also. I missed that one. You are 5 years ahead of me. But I’m catching up.

  4. Roger says:

    I see what you are getting at but think this does Heath a great disservice.

    He started his career with none of Cameron’s many advantages – he was never allowed to forget that his father had started out as a jobbing carpenter and had to work his own way through grammar school to win a scholarship to Oxford before commanding an artillery battery in World War II and working as a civil servant, a journalist and a banker (back in the days when bankers were Captain Mainwarings and not public school-educated spivs).

    And at a time when Conservative Central Office operated an actual marriage agency to match up even the most unlikely candidates with suitably decorative brides, he remained stubbornly unmarried and damned the consequences.

    He also served his political apprenticeship not as a bright young man in the leaders office but as a government whip – a thankless but vital duty which he carried on for nine whole years.

    And with so little going for him socially, personally and politically he still somehow convinced the Tory party that he was the man to lead it when there were multiple potential rivals who were much more charismatic and experienced.

    And as Prime Minister unlike Cameron he could abandon ideology when the evidence piled up to show that it was not working.

    He started his premiership in 1970 as ‘Selsdon Man’ with a proto-Thatcherite programme of de-regulation, privatisation and fiscal rectitude and when this failed to produce the growth he had been promised that it would then switched back to full-on Keynesianism (which also failed disastrously in the end but for reasons which were at least partially global).

    I also think you over-egg his corporatism – his industrial laws were intended not to fully incorporate the unions into national policy making but to make it harder to strike – and in the political conditions of 1970-4 this required recourse to the carrot as well as to the stick.

    The mixture of opportunism and ideology (and what is a politician if not an opportunistic ideologue?) in Cameron is very different – Cameron’s cynical opportunism is narrowly selfish and political in the worst sense of the word and evidently runs in tandem with an ideological fanaticism so deeply ingrained that it is virtually invisible.

    While not particularly competent for some of the personal reasons you list (although ultimately the dislike felt for him by the Tory elite was as much about class – and perhaps the mystery of his sexuality – as about his admittedly unattractive personality), Heath had both the realism to abandon ideology when it wasn’t working and a wider geopolitical vision born from his experiences in WW2 when he helped level German cities and standing in the ruins at least in some sense sincerely vowed ‘never again’.

    He also behaved honourably enough over race – sacking Enoch Powell and letting in the Ugandan Asians even though Wilson and Callaghan’s 1968 Immigration Bill had been deliberately framed to keep out to keep out any more such influxes.

    Just compare and contrast this record to the cheap xenophobia and racism that infests Cameron’s party and is pushed every day by his media supporters/overlords.

    So Heath was an awful man who led an awful party and whose political life (like all political lives) ended in well-deserved failure – but he was still worth ten David Camerons.

  5. Roger says:

    Oh and Heath also actually WON an election (two if you count his getting more votes than Labour in February 1974) – and he beat an incumbent PM who was much more popular and in control of events than poor Gordon Brown and in a much more evenly matched mass media environment.

  6. All interesting, good and fair points, Roger – Thank you.

    So: an awful man who led an awful party was still worth ten David Camerons. Of course, Labour should not be complacent but verdicts like this should surely give us some confidence that this prime minister can be defeated.

Leave a Reply