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Is Cameron the heir to Heath?

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2011-07-03 at 21.03.41

In one sense at least, the answer is yes.  David Cameron is the seventh person to have entered Downing Street as Prime Minister since Edward Heath left it in 1974.  But are there more reasons for the same reply?  Two have been advanced by others.  I can think of two more for which there's a case.

  • U-turns.  Lansley's NHS bill, Clarke's crime bill, schools sports, Booktrust funding, free milk, abolishing the 1922 Committee...The list is long...and it's getting longer...
  • Leadership from left of party centre.  Cameron is a self-proclaimed "liberal Conservative" - as the Macmillan photograph in his Opposition office confirmed.
  • No obvious internal challenger.  George Osborne and Cameron remain politically inseparable, for all the former's discreet preparations for a post-Cameron future.  The party's right has no single leader.
  • A one-term Government? I've heard a senior Liberal Democrat argue that Cameron's will fail to reform the public services, but that a future Tory Government will learn from its errors.

So do these claims stack up?  Pink for yes, blue for no, our usual colours for unproven.

  • Cameron is certainly leading the party from left of its centre.  Indeed, Cameron is arguably the most left-wing Conservative leader in modern times.  John Major turned out to be what's often called a One Nation Tory, but many of his votes in the 1990 leadership election came from the party's right.  Heath himself won the 1965 contest partly because he was sold as a more combative leader than his main rival, Reginald Maudling - as the kind of "classless" and "abrasive" leader that the party would need to take on Harold Wilson.  Cameron fought his leadership campaign unashamedly from left-of-party-centre, and has kept or taken Conservative policy there - on climate change and international development spending in particular.  It's worth noting that Peter Oborne has argued that Cameron is "in practice the most pro-European prime minister since Sir Edward Heath".  This claim must be weighed against Margaret Thatcher signing the Single European Act, and Major acting likewise with regard to the Maastricht Treaty.  None the less, it's indisputable that the Coalition Agreement junked the Conservative manifesto proposals for the repatriation of some powers, and that the Government has broadly followed the same course on the EU as its predecessors to date.
  • And he has no obvious internal challenger.  The biggest figure in Heath's original Cabinet was his Chancellor, Iain Macleod.  The most substantial one in Cameron's is again the Chancellor, George Osborne.  Macleod died in the very early days of the Heath Government, and Osborne remains exceptionally close to the Prime Minister - for all his discreet preparations for a post-Cameron party future.  So like Heath, Cameron dominates the landscape of his own administraton.  And like Heath again, he lives with a right of the party which has no leader.  Enoch Powell became a solitary figure, walking gradually away from the Conservatives during the Heath Government, and following his reasoning to the logical conclusion of recommending a Labour vote in 1974.  The modern right's leadership is more numerous and less confrontational: Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox, Owen Paterson, David Davis, John Redwood, Graham Brady...even, arguably, Douglas Carswell (within the Commons) and Daniel Hannan (outside it).  But Cameron should beware: Heath's eventual challenger - the three-times election winner who overturned much of his legacy - came unforeseen and unexpected by almost everyone.
  • Heath's U-turns were central to his Government, but Cameron's haven't been to date.  Heath U-turned on Northern Ireland (abolishing Stormont) and arguably over Europe (because his actions in Government went much further than the party's 1970 manifesto commitments).  But the about-turn for which he is best remembered is economics-related - his last-ditch attempt to make Keynesian economics work, complete with printing money to boost the economy and an incomes policy to restrain wages.  Cameron's main U-turns, by contrast, have been public services-related: the dilution of the Lansley and Clarke reforms.  To emulate Heath, he'd have to persuade Osborne to tear up the Government's deficit reduction plan and proclaim that Alistair Darling (if not Ed Balls) has been right all along.  This would almost certainly destroy the Government's credibility with the electorate, and make the impact on them that Cameron's changes of heart have, so far, failed to do.  (The party's polling ratings are at roughly their general election levels.)
  • We don't know whether or not this will be a one-term Government.  A statement of the obvious.

Three final reflections.

  • Heath and Cameron's backgrounds could scarcely be more different...  A small house in Broadstairs and Chatham House Grammar School versus an old rectory in Berkshire and Eton College.
  • ...And nor could their disposition and character.  Spiky bachelor versus posh smoothie.
  • Above all, Cameron succeeded with the Liberal Democrats where Heath failed with the Liberals.  The latter failed to persuade Jeremy Thorpe to lead his party into coalition as a putative Home Secretary in 1974.  Cameron had better luck with Nick Clegg.

This kind of historical comparisons are as inevitable as they can be misleading - and, sometimes, unnecessary (though in this case I think that the enquiry is worth making).  I began by writing that in one sense the answer to the question is yes.  For the reasons I've set out, this also applies in others.  But in most, this is what John Rentoul, the supreme arbiter, would call a QTWTAIN.

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