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David Cameron, the Party and trust

by Paul Goodman

The relationship between a Party and its leader must be founded on trust if it's to work well.  There are substantial reasons why the Conservatives' trust in the Prime Minister should be strong -

  • David Cameron's background is reassuringly Tory, in a traditional One Nation manner.  Tony Blair never shook off a sense of being a stranger to his own party.  This can't be said of Cameron, son of a stockbroker and a magistrate, Old Etonian, Oxford graduate, cousin of a head of Lady Thatcher's Downing Street policy unit, and former head himself of the political section of the Conservative Research Department.
  • He won a crushing endorsement in the Party's 2005 leadership contest.  He took 68 per cent of the votes of Party members, beating David Davis by a margin of two to one.  In the final round of the previous Parliamentary ballot, he gained 90 votes to Davis's 57 and Liam Fox's 50 - an emphatic endorsement.  These margins would have been impossible, lest it be forgotten, without the support of a big slice of the Party's right.
  • According to the Party's website, more seats were won by the Conservatives at the last election than in any since 1931, and the Party also recorded the biggest swing against Labour since that year, winning a clear majority of seats in England.  Last May, 97 new Conservative MP were elected to the Commons under his leadership.  They ought to recognise his part in their rise.
  • He's leading a Government as blue in parts as Margaret Thatcher's.  It's begun to eliminate the structural budget deficit, plans to implement a programme of public sector reform more radical than that of the 1980s, and is beginning to deliver on its localist programme.  Indeed, a recent complaint has been that the pace of reform is too fast - hence the pause on the Health Bill
  • It's delivered real gains to date.  We're six months on from the Prime Minister's Party Conference speech, but a section of it's worth quoting -

"200 new academies.  10,000 university places.  50,000 apprenticeships.  Corporation tax – cut.  The jobs tax – axed. Police targets – smashed. Immigration – capped. The third runway – stopped.  Home Information Packs – dropped.  Fat cat salaries – revealed.  ID Cards – abolished.  The NHS – protected.  Our aid promise – kept.  Quangos – closing down.  Ministers’ pay – coming down.  A bank levy – coming up.  A cancer drugs fund – up and running.  £6 billion of spending saved this year.  An emergency budget to balance the books in five years.  An EU referendum lock to protect our sovereign powers every year.  For our pensioners – the earnings link restored.  For our new entrepreneurs – employees’ tax reduced.  And for our brave armed forces – the operational allowance doubled."
  • He is a natural Prime MinisterEverything I wrote about his leadership qualities six months into his Premiership remains true.

So why is trust in Cameron weaker than it should be?  There's no shortage of evidence for the claim.  True, the source of some of the distrust is Downing Street in general - the Number 10 operation - rather than the Prime Minister personally.  However -

  • There's no enthusiasm for the Government among a shrinking and ageing membership.  I admit that I can't provide links to strengthen my case, as above.  But that's the unambiguous verdict of MPs returned from their round of Association AGMs who I've spoken to.

I list reasons in chronological order, rather than order of importance -

  • Personnel.  From the hiring of Steve Hilton to the re-hiring of Patrick Rock, the complaint has come that Team Cameron is a magic circle.  This gripe has been made about every Conservative leader since Thatcher - with the possible exception of Major - and can often be discounted. But the only people I can think of that have made the inner sanctum from outside have been Andy Coulson and now Craig Oliver.
  • The A-list.  The A-list operation was fundamental in suggesting to activists and former candidates that the leadership wasn't on their side: that it saw them rather as a young and ambitious Chief Executive might see an elderly member of the board - to be shuffled off with a farewell bash and a ormulu clock.  As ConservativeHome's research established during the last Parliament, most Conservative candidates were not original A-listers, and were thus bound to view the leadership with a measure of suspicion.
  • Expenses.  Cameron was in a perilous spot during the expenses crisis.  The media and voters rightly wanted unambiguous condemnation of the scandal and money returned to the taxpayer.  Nick Clegg was poised to position the Liberal Democrats as the anti-politician party.  The only course open to the Conservative leader was to instigate a plan to ensure repayments.  However, some MPs were treated more harshly than others, which pre-2010 MPs haven't forgotten.
  • The election campaign.  Last May's election was an ascent of K2.  The Tories started with a base of under 200 MPs.  The financial crash smashed Cameron's chance of having a soft run-in to the election.  The expenses scandal had erased trust in politicians.  Gordon Brown had built up a bigger state-dependent base over 13 Labour years.  But as ConservativeHome has consistently argued, the Party fought an underwhelming campaign whose key idea, the Big Society, hadn't been tested by focus groups before it was launched.  Some MPs believe that the leadership threw victory away.
  • Cameron's AV warning to the '22.  The Parliamentary Party was unwilling to enter a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Large parts of it would have been content for the Conservatives to form a minority Government.  What swung the 1922 Committee's decision to chance coalition was Cameron's warning that Labour would give the Liberal Democrats AV without a referendum.  It turns out that whatever the Prime Minister was told, no such undertaking was made by Labour.  John Baron's piece on this site last week shows how unhappy some Tory MPs are about the whole business.
  • The attempt to abolish the '22.  It was clear before the new Parliament met that Graham Brady, the right's candidate, would beat Richard Ottoway for the '22 Chairmanship.  Brady resigned from Cameron's front bench during the grammar schools row, and relations between him and the Party leader are cool.  Cameron's attempt to merge the '22 with his front bench was seen as an attempt to stop Brady's election.  It provoked a furore, and the former was forced to back down.  It was an tactical blunder by a normally astute politician, and has left a legacy of unease.
  • Policy and pitch.  Conservative MPs would like bluer policies on crime, prisons, the EU, University access, family policy and human rights in particular.  But the core of this issue isn't so much individual policies, the Coalition programme or even the junking of the Lisbon Referendum (which played badly even with voters ungripped by the EU issue) as the general Team Cameron pitch.  It has a finely attuned ear for liberal-leaning, centre ground voters - which was badly needed after the best part of ten years in opposition - but less of one for the battlers, the strivers, the C1s and C2s, aspiration voters, Sid's Heirs or whatever you want to call them.
  • IPSA.  Cameron could probably, all other things being equal, calm his Party's discontents were it not for his troops' discontent over pay and rations.  His decision to acquiesce in setting up an independent body to administer expenses, based on the continued publication of receipts, has come back to haunt him.  MPs want the receipts-based system scrapped.  The media want it retained, as will voters.  A solution has not yet been found.
  • Election pact rumours.  The AV referendum has put these on hold.  But they'll re-surface if electoral change doesn't happen.  Nick Boles was the first MP to float an election deal with the Liberal Democrats.  John Major took up the cause.  Francis Maude makes little secret of his support for it.  Cameron's cancellation of a Tory leafletting drive during the run-up to the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, and his refusal to rule out a deal at the next election, have made his already edgy backbenchers even more skittish.
  • Conservative class war.  I wrote late last year about class war on the Conservative backbenches.  As the squeeze on MPs' outside interests tightens and their expenses regime is toughened, a gap's opening up between those with private incomes and those without.  Labour has consistently tried to paint the Cameron leadership as a toffocracy which neither understands nor cares how everyone else lives.  Some Tory MPs who are either enmeshed in the coils of IPSA, or at odds with Downing Street over policy, or both are beginning to echo this perception in private.  This is dangerous territory for the Prime Minister.

So what's to be done?

You know the usual drift at this point.  The commentator puts up a series of ideas.  Collective faces...changes in Downing Street...better communication with the Party...shake-up at CCHQ...and so on.

My answer to the question is: I don't think that there's anything to be done - in the short term, anyway.

Some of the ideas alluded to above would doubtless help the Government to improve its work or better its communication.  None of them, however, will restore trust.  This is because trust, like Rome, isn't built in a day, or even over a few months.

Like a business or a marriage, it has to be worked at.  And like peace in the Yeats poem, trust "comes dropping slow".  But if AV falls, Cameron isn't short of time to improve his relationship with his Party over time: after all, he has a full five year term, if the Government lasts.


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