ConservativeHome is today launching a 40,000 word guide to the one hundred most influential people and groups on the Right. Over the next few days we will be publishing seven of the profiles contained in that guide. Number two in our list is the Prime Minister David Cameron. If you do not subscribe to the ConservativeHome Quarterly you can purchase a copy by sending a £20 cheque, payable to ConservativeHome, to Michelle Hollands, ConservativeHome, 5 The Sanctuary, Westminster SW1P 3JS.
During his six years as Tory leader David Cameron has been very lucky with his opponents and very unlucky with events.
His opponent for the Tory leadership was David Davis. Typically for a frontrunner in a Tory leadership race, Davis fell short. He ran a complacent and disorganised campaign and although he got his act together in the final stages of the contest it was too late. Cameron cruised to a landslide victory. Cameron has faced three Labour leaders and each of them has been weak. By December 2005 when Cameron became Tory leader, Tony Blair, the most potent Tory-killing politician that the Labour Party had ever produced, was a shadow of his former self. Brown could have inflicted a fourth successive defeat on the Conservatives if he’d had the courage to call an election in September 2007 but Brown never possessed much courage. He waited too long to take on Blair and ‘bottler Brown’ dithered too long over calling a honeymoon election. And today there’s Ed Miliband. Conservatives can’t decide whether the Red Ed or Odd Ed factor is the Leader of the Opposition’s greatest weakness. Whatever the answer David Cameron goes to bed every night thanking his lucky stars that his principal opponent is someone with an out-of-the-mainstream economic policy and a character that just does not look prime ministerial.
But if the opponents have been a blessing, events haven’t been kind to Cameron. He began his leadership of the Conservative Party with a focus on mending Britain’s broken society but the economic, expenses and Murdoch crises have all come along to knock him off course and test his flexibility. None of these crises have floored him but many wonder if he would now be a Prime Minister of a majority Conservative government if voters hadn’t been frightened by the prospect of Cameron’s “age of austerity”.
The failure to win the 2010 general election was certainly the most disappointing moment of Cameron’s leadership. The Conservatives had been twenty points ahead in many opinion polls but a lacklustre and disjointed general election campaign followed a series of strategic positioning errors. The Conservatives did not use their years in opposition to develop a robust prosperity message. On issues like climate change and the Big Society Cameron was too far removed from the bread-and-butter concerns of the striving class. And in agreeing to equal participation for Nick Clegg in the election debates he handed a game changer to Britain’s third party.
But if the failure to win the election was a terrible low point Cameron has gambled that the decision to form Britain’s first post-war Coalition will realign British politics and, perhaps, be his lasting political achievement. Although the likes of Vince Cable and Chris Huhne often annoy him, Cameron is keener on the company of Clegg, Alexander, Browne and Laws than on the company of Bone, Cash, Dorries, and Pritchard or even Brady, Davis, Forsyth and Redwood. There may never be a formal Tory-Lib Dem pact but the uber-modernisers in Cameron’s circle would desperately like some sort of continuing arrangement with the Liberal Democrats’ Orange Book minority. Cameron believes that many of today’s senior Liberal Democrats would have been wearing blue rosettes if his greener, more socially just and liberal brand of Tory politics had existed fifteen or twenty years ago. The Cameroonian emphasis on civil liberties, homosexual equality, overseas aid and NHS funding certainly made the Coalition a possibility. Clegg could never have allied with Michael Howard’s brand.
The Cameron brand is not a deeply ideological brand. It’s too early to know whether today’s Conservative Prime Minister will be more like Thatcher than Heath in terms of pace and realisation of radical reform but he’s definitely a Tory leader in the Macmillan mode. Bruce Anderson has said that Cameron would ideally like to combine the social stability of the 1950s with the economic dynamism of the 1980s. Such a combination is fraught with contradiction but it captures something important about Cameron’s essential Englishness. He’s wanted to be Prime Minister for all of his adult life but never at the expense of his time with his wife and the family he cherishes. There’s not a part of him that isn’t conservative but every part is in moderation. He’s fiscally conservative but is ready to raise taxes as well as cut spending. He’s socially conservative but in a very modern, gay-friendly way. He’s a law and order conservative but also aims to address the causes of crime. He’s an interventionist in the affairs of other nations but in a way that is much more humble than Blair or Bush. He’s most certainly a Unionist and patriot but he shies away from a confrontation with Brussels.
For many in the Conservative Party Cameron doesn’t offer them enough red meat or enough clear blue water between Britain and the EU. Conservatives desperately want to rebalance Britain’s relationship with Brussels and the party could become very unhappy indeed if the Euro crisis isn’t used to deliver renegotiation and repatriation of powers. Cameron would do well to study Obama’s difficulties with his own Democratic party. Obama has failed to love his party and his party hasn’t been there for him in his time of danger. Cameron needs to do more to build better relations with his MPs and activists and involve more people in his project. There is a sense that the friends of twenty or more years who dominate his inner circle are too closed to the views of rank-and-file Conservatives. This may be unfair but one of the most important skills in a great leader is party management and Cameron has often been careless with his. He has never, for example, rehabilitated an internal party opponent who has fallen out of favour with him. He needs to learn to do forgiveness.
Nonetheless Cameron currently dominates British politics. The Labour party is in a strategically weak position. The Liberal Democrats would face annihilation if they brought down his government. The Tory Right is becoming a little more organised but remains too balkanised to challenge him in any serious way. His relationship with his Chancellor is rock solid. After years of disunity all previous Tory leaders are in Cameron’s corner, actively helping him to succeed. On the deficit, crime, state benefits and immigration he has the public on his side. In his reforms to schools and the welfare state he has policies that are both resonant and potentially transformational. In Steve Hilton’s underestimated transparency agenda he has tools that will produce a new era of accountability to the public sector. If he can get the economy growing he will be able to afford to refocus on his great cause – social responsibility – and, then, his best and happiest years may be ahead of him.
Tomorrow we will reveal the number one in The Right List.