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For Cameron's critics to condemn the Coalition shows a lack of mental balance

By Andrew Gimson
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David Cameron is a much better Prime Minister than his critics are prepared to admit. He is denounced with a ferocity that precludes debate. Hence the difficulty in knowing how to deal with UKIP. To observe that Cameron has strengths as well as weaknesses is seen by its supporters as a provocation, and produces ever more vehement denunciations. His critics have become determined to believe the worst of him. 

I do not wish to imply that our politicians should be spared criticism. If people want to abuse Cameron, they have every right to do so. One way in which we can stop our politicians from becoming over-mighty is by insulting them. 

And Cameron can himself be provocative. His decision to go ahead with gay marriage infuriated many traditional Conservatives, some of whom assure me they will never vote Conservative again. At Westminster, a Tory backbencher told me this week that he and his colleagues could not stomach the “sneer of cold command” which he felt was all they ever got from Cameron, and from George Osborne too. 

Part of the job of the press is to report such discontent. But as a political journalist, the unsatisfactory recognition slowly dawned on me that for most of the time I was just swept along on the general tide of opinion. If the story was that Cameron, or Nick Clegg, or Ed Miliband was in trouble, one tended to spend one’s time looking for evidence that supported this thesis, and to discount anything which contradicted it, or anything short of a major and incontestable triumph. 

Major and incontestable triumphs are rare in politics. It is more common to find evidence which can be read either way, in part because it is simply too early to know whether the measures in question are going to work. Cameron’s coalition has embarked on the biggest programme of domestic reform since Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, but we can’t yet see the results. 

Cameron is a pragmatic leader leading a coalition which is attempting some surprisingly ambitious things. But if this work is to be seen through, and fields such as welfare and education are to be improved, he has to keep his coalition together. And that in turn requires a constant process of concession, compromise and what Winston Churchill once called “the inevitable acquiescence in inferior solutions”. 

The phrase comes in Churchill’s essay on Lord Rosebery, who as Prime Minister in 1894-95 had high aims, but failed because “He would not go through the laborious, vexatious and at times humiliating processes necessary under modern conditions to bring about these great ends. He would not stoop; he did not conquer.” 

After Cameron had failed, in 2010, to lead his party to victory, he stooped and formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It would have been more daring to form a minority administration, govern for a few months and then seek a decisive mandate. But the country was in deep financial crisis, and one may doubt whether the Tories on their own would have been any better at dealing with the deficit than the coalition has been. 

By choosing the prudent rather than the precarious option, and insisting that this arrangement would last for five years, Cameron achieved a stability which allowed other reforms to go ahead. By making the Lib Dems an offer they could not refuse, he has inflicted deep pain on them. And by running a deficit which remains astronomical, he and George Osborne have posed a very difficult question for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, namely whether Labour would run a still more astronomical deficit. 

None of this is especially glorious. It offers nothing to those who would prefer a “jump to glory style of politics”, as Michael Oakeshott called it in his essay “On being conservative”. Cameron is often accused by his critics of being arrogant, but has actually been too modest for their taste. He has not attempted, by a heroic programme of tax and spending cuts, to administer shock therapy to the British economy. He has taken a more gradual path, and at least in the south-east, things seem at last to be picking up. I am told that on the 7.34 a.m. train from Guildford to London Waterloo, it is harder now to get a seat than it was six months ago. 

How unsatisfying that humdrum news is for people who look to politics for salvation. They judge a leader by an altogether higher standard: demand the impossible from Cameron, or whoever else is in power, and then condemn the Prime Minister for failing to achieve it. They are perfectionists, who choose to believe that a true Conservative can bring about heaven on earth, and that Cameron fails to do this because he is not Conservative enough. In days gone by, socialists used to believe that kind of Utopian claptrap, but the disease has spread to the Tories, who used to be immune to it. 

At the other end of the spectrum, a large number of political commentators conduct themselves like racing tipsters. They only respect the horse they think is going to win. There are two reasons why this is a bad way in which to follow politics. The first is that the tipsters are often wrong. In a two-horse race, or even a race with three or four starters, it is only necessary for the lead horse to put its foot down a hole and break its leg, and some slower nag may come home first. We can’t yet know for certain what will happen in May 2015. 

The other reason why the tipster approach to politics is unsatisfactory is that it may be more honourable to lose an election than to win it. Democracy cannot function without good losers. In 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home narrowly lost to Harold Wilson. Yet as Charles Moore points out in his new biography of Margaret Thatcher, for her, Sir Alec was “a marvellous man” and in many ways her favourite Tory leader. Unlike some of her followers, she loved and admired an aristocrat who knew how to behave. 

Mention of Lady Thatcher reminds one how impossible her successors have found it to define themselves in terms of her. Anything less than complete devotion distresses her supporters. Robin Harris claims in his new biography of her that she was not interested in Cameron, “and he was interested in her only as an element in his public relations strategy”. 

It seems to me completely ridiculous to expect a new Tory leader to replicate her ideological fervour. Cameron is an Anglican, who can make very rapid and often correct judgements about things because he can draw on an inherited tradition of behaviour. 

Cameron’s critics demean themselves when they attack him for having been to a good school. How delighted the Americans would be to possess, in Eton, an ancient foundation which had adapted itself so well to modern times. From being a kind of comprehensive school for the upper classes, Eton has turned itself into a grammar school which produces the meritocrats who are now required. We need more grammar schools like this, where able children can develop their full potential. To attack Eton, under the chippy and in any case mistaken impression that it is a mere repository of unearned privilege, is to reject a part of our nation of which we should be proud. 

One cannot yet know whether Cameron’s coalition will come to be regarded as a success or a failure. But for so many Conservatives, or former Conservatives, to be determined already to condemn it as a hopeless and disreputable failure, suggests a lack of mental balance.


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