Peter Hoskin: Now’s the time for David Cameron to make a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to his own party
Even from this distance of two-and-a-half years, David Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” to the Liberal Democrats stands out as a totemic speech. It was fresh: a sincere effort to overcome the tribalism that so often defines British politics. It was strategically brilliant: helping ensure that the gains of election night actually counted for something come the morning after. But most of all it was startlingly clear: here was a Conservative leader setting out, point-by-point, those areas where he disagreed with the Lib Dems, those where he sympathised and those where he would compromise. Mr Cameron offered a simple, unvarnished basis for discussion.
Things have, of course, become messier since then. The Coalition Agreement sprayed gloss paint over contentious policy areas such as Europe, and Coalition Government has meant a splattering of blood, too. But, despite that, some of the clarity of Mr Cameron’s original offer has remained. The updated Coalition Agreement, set to be published in January, is meant to spell out what the Tories and Lib Dems have achieved together so far, and what they plan to achieve in the rest of this Parliament. Both party leaderships are currently working out the areas of compromise and cooperation.
Such lines of complaint can be unfair: Mr Cameron’s speech to conference in 2005 is proof enough that he has a political prospectus, and that he has communicated it to his party. But the fact that these complaints exist ought to trouble Downing Street nonetheless. Gordon Brown’s premiership showed what can happen when a party believes its leader doesn’t know where he’s going. They start trying to pull him in every direction.
Besides, not all of the complaints are unfair. One of the leitmotifs of Mr Cameron’s leadership has been his standoffish relationship with the Conservative backbenches — and while this has improved recently, with more frequent conversation between No.10 and the ‘22, it’s still not chocolates and roses. For instance, some Tory MPs say that they rely on commentators such as the Spectator’s James Forsyth, the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan and Rachel Sylvester of the Times to find out what the leadership is thinking. This is testament to the skill and insight of those journalists, sure; but not really how things should be.
More damaging, though, has been the Tory leader’s inconsistency. Consider practically any of the policy areas that Zac Goldsmith listed yesterday, and you’ll hit upon a u-turn of sorts. Back in 2008, Mr Cameron said of Heathrow expansion that “there are now increasing grounds to believe that the economic case in flawed, even without addressing the serious environmental concerns”; now he has an “open mind” about it. In the past year alone, he has both praised and disparaged wind farms. And while the Prime Minister is free to change his mind, it’s often hard to fathom why he’s doing so. Airport policy has been outsourced to the Davies inquiry; Mr Cameron has delivered not one speech about energy and the environment since taking office. This allows confusion to fester.
And there has been inconsistency of another sort: even when Mr Cameron does sound a clear bugle call, he generally drops it soon afterwards. A case in point was the “don’t you dare lecture us about poverty” attack that he made against Labour in his 2009 conference speech. This was powerful, persuasive and overflowing with potential — and it has barely been heard of since.
It’s even got to the point where Mr Cameron could learn from Ed Miliband. The way the Labour leader has co-opted the phrase “One Nation” has been shallow and dastardly, but at least it has been consistent. Since his conference speech last month, there have been One Nation events, One Nation policy debates and a million One Nation tweets. It has been a banner for Mr Miliband’s MPs to unite under. By contrast, the central theme of Mr Cameron’s superior conference speech — as Matthew d’Ancona put it, “how conservative means achieve progressive ends” — has already faded with the applause. In its place, David Cameron the Prime Minister of a Coalition Government, and a confused idea about David Cameron the Conservative Leader.
This is why, as the Conservative and Lib Dem leaderships look to renew their relationship, Mr Cameron should also make a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to his own party. This doesn’t mean a dramatic public speech, nor — to pick up on a recent theme — does it mean telling Tory MPs what they want they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. But it does mean greater clarity about his brand of Conservatism, and an openness about where he agrees, disagrees and might compromise with other Conservatives. It also means a clearer sense of how any future Conservative majority administration would operate.
This wouldn’t nullify all the frustrations within the Conservative Party, of course, but it could ease some of them. After all, it’s an approach that has already brought two different parties closer, so it should help in uniting a single party. As it was then, let it be now: “I want us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems...”