The Magazine

Can Cameron Lose?

Appeasing the media has reduced the Tory strategy to the twin pillars of inoffensiveness and not being Labour.

Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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That this is an election that will revolve around the economy is, moreover, not the straightforward winner for the Tories that one might suppose. Debilitated by years of Labour misrule, Britain’s economy was exhibiting severe signs of strain even before the financial meltdown. But the 2008 crisis provided a perverse alibi for Blair and Brown’s bungling. The slump is not Labour’s fault, you see, but the work of those wicked, overpaid bankers—sleek, pinstriped, prosperous predators who look a lot like the Tories of socialist legend. It’s no great stretch for Brown to argue from there that the Great Recession is the logical consequence and conclusion of Thatcherism. And it will be no great stretch for many voters to agree. The problems with that analysis are complicated to explain in the course of an election campaign, especially for a party trying very hard not to appear disagreeable.  

The Tories have to get over themselves. They need to pin the blame for the mess on Labour—where it largely belongs—but they also need to demonstrate that they have the competence and the ideas to manage Britain’s way out of this jam. The last few weeks of the Conservative campaign have not been reassuring on the competence front. 

The ideas haven’t been too great, either. For all their talk of restoring a measure of control to the nation’s finances, the Tories have spelled out relatively little in the way of expenditure cuts. That Cameron has also vowed to “protect” spending on the National Health Service, a cost that already represents around 18 percent of public expenditure and is set to rise higher, merely reinforces the idea that the Tories are not serious about the deficit. Yet Cameron really had no choice. To advocate cutting back the NHS is an act of political suicide in Britain. The NHS, a source of national pride for all its shortcomings, is the third rail of British politics, the great creation of Labour’s postwar settlement, and a powerful mechanism forever pulling Britain’s politics to the left and its people into ever deeper dependency on the state whether as employee (the NHS payroll is over 1.3 million strong) or patient. 

Yet Britain’s growing budgetary crisis (government debt is slouching towards 100 percent of GDP by 2014) presents the Tories with a conundrum. An austerity program will be essential, and it will be painful, particularly in a nation where so many work for the public sector. For the Tories to give more details of how they plan to come to grips with the budget deficit is essential if they are to be believed as offering a credible alternative to Labour’s botching of the economy. At the same time, it could be electoral poison in a country where the (wildly exaggerated) “Thatcher cuts” of the 1980s still fester in political folklore. 

Labour knows this. The government is doing everything it can to create the illusion that the U.K. can somehow muddle through this crisis without too much pain. Putting party before country, Chancellor of the Exchequer Alastair Darling has left spending plans broadly unchanged over the last year, a stance that owes more to political calculation than to the more respectable concern that domestic demand is too depressed for cuts now. That’s a stance that could easily be reconciled with detailing plans for the more frugal future that the markets want to see, but this is not the course that Darling has taken. His pragmatic irresponsibility has been rewarded: An ICM poll earlier this month showed that when it comes to trust in their ability to handle the recession, the Tories’ lead over Labour had fallen to 2 percentage points—down from 15 in October.

The sense that there is something missing from what the Conservatives are saying is not confined to the economy. Just take the example of immigration. One of the hallmarks of the Blair-Brown years has been the failure to control the U.K.’s borders, through negligence, indifference, and worse: Recently uncovered documents appear to suggest that some of the increase was the product of a deliberate effort to reshape the British population. The welcome mat was noticed. Immigrants have poured in a net annual rate that quadrupled between 1997 (the year of Blair’s first election victory) and 2007, bad news for an overcrowded island wrestling with endemic (if often disguised) unemployment and a sometimes volatile multicultural mix. Unsurprisingly, this issue is a major source of unease to many Britons. According to a Daily Mail/BPIX poll of swing constituencies in early March, 45 percent of voters would be “more likely” to vote Conservative if the party were to take a tougher line on immigration, yet Cameron has said next to nothing on the topic. Reports last weekend that the leadership would no longer have any objections to Conservative candidates’ using the I-word in their election literature show just how far things had been allowed to slide. To some critics, the reason for such hesitation, which is by no means confined to the immigration issue, is that the Tories are still preoccupied with fighting a battle they have already won: the fight to show that they are indeed no longer the nasty party. 

But there are other critics with a different explanation. Cameron’s policy shifts have won him few real friends among the Tory base. There is respect for his political skills and a grudging recognition that much of what he has done had to be done if the Conservatives were, after three consecutive general election defeats, ever to win power again. The party’s right-wingers accept that their guys had their chance in the 2001 and the 2005 elections and that it didn’t work out. They also know that British voters typically don’t opt for parties where the divisions are too obvious. So, if through frequently gritted teeth, the right has gone along, soothed by the prospect of victory. 

As that prospect fades, there’s revived anxiety that Cameron is not, to borrow Mrs. Thatcher’s phrase, “one of us.” Are his attempts to drive the party in another direction as much a matter of conviction as of tactics? These fears have been boosted by a series of recent moves that made no electoral sense, or at the very least were evidence of a leadership that was badly out of touch.

They include an attempt by the Cameron clique (and it is a clique) to force local constituency associations to pick female parliamentary candidates through the use of women-only shortlists. This flew in the face of Tory meritocracy, made a mockery of Cameron’s alleged commitment to grassroots politics, and risked alienating the activists who need to be enthused ahead of the hard slog of a general election campaign. Adding to the irritation on the right has been the leadership’s refusal to use the obvious opportunity presented by the various Climategates to make clear that its commitment to Gore’s war against climate change was not, contrary to earlier impressions, a blank check. 

And then, inevitably, there’s Europe. The decision last November by Cameron to renege on his “cast iron” pledge to hold, if elected, a referendum on the EU’s -Lisbon Treaty was logical (the treaty had since come into effect: A British rejection would not be enough to undo it) but dreadful politically. The Tory lead in the polls began to slide shortly thereafter. Making matters worse to a party and a country that is far from friendly to the EU’s ever-expanding reach, in February it emerged that the Conservatives were sending Ken Clarke, the last serving senior Tory still in the grip of europhilia, on a discreet mission to Brussels. Its presumed purpose? To reassure the EU elite that the Conservatives were suitably housetrained. 

Cameron is running on a program of—wait for it—“change.” But the electorate is asking just what sort of change this would really be. While the Conservatives would be a considerable improvement on the sleazy and incompetent gang now running Britain, many voters suspect that voting for the Tories will simply mean swapping “progressive” rule by one metropolitan faction with that by another. This view has only been reinforced by the expenses scandals that have roiled parliament and shamed the entire political class. It’s a reasonable bet that small nonestablishment parties will, along with “none of the above,” increase their share of the vote this time round. Nevertheless, not being Labour is still probably going to be enough—just—to hand Cameron the keys to 10 Downing Street. After 13 years of Blair/Brown, too much sewage has flowed under Westminster Bridge for voters to want to risk giving Labour another go.

The problem for Cameron is that, in the absence of a massive financial crisis breaking between now and election day, his majority will be small. This will leave him vulnerable when things start to turn rough. And the U.K.’s desperate financial straits ensure that they will. Britain is already brutally taxed. Sooner rather than later the next prime minister will have to slash government spending, and he will have do so against a backdrop of high unemployment, sustained economic underperformance, and the rising opposition of a center-left nation. You can guess where the media will stand on all this. 

Mrs. Thatcher found herself in a not dissimilar predicament within a year or so of taking office in 1979. Many of her senior colleagues panicked, but what saved her was the loyalty of much of the Conservative base, a base that the parliamentary party could not risk defying, however much they might want to. She, party loyalists knew, was one of them. 

As things are currently going, they won’t feel the same way about David Cameron in 2011. 

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.

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