20 September 2015

CapX Reviews: Bruce Anderson on Anthony Seldon on Cameron


Cameron at 10: The Inside Story 2010-2015. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon, Harper Collins, RRP £20

This is an indispensable book and everyone who is interested in British politics should read it. To amass and synthesise so much material in such a short time is a considerable achievement, and it will endure as an essential part of the historical record. When they set out to consider Cameron, future generations of scholars will start with Seldon.

That said, and this is inevitable, the archive is more valuable than the analysis. Mr Seldon’s account is a work in progress, and how could that be otherwise? David Cameron’s Premiership is a work in progress. This book could be subtitled “Notes towards a definition of Cameron” and it is none the worse for that. Even those who have followed Tory politics and the Cameroons intently will find themselves engrossed and challenged. Two points emerge clearly. The first is the embattled nature of the Cameron years: the second, that circumstances forced him to take different routes from those he had envisaged.

Before 2008, like almost every banker, politician and commentator throughout the West, David Cameron assumed that the world economy was stable. Taking growth for granted, he promised to share its proceeds. This chimed with his own personality. As David Cameron often says about himself, for him the glass is always half full, never half empty. He was designed to be a good times politician. Then the roof fell in.

Even when his economic plans were confounded, Mr Cameron made a second assumption: that he would have a working majority. That too proved inaccurate. The electoral glass was half empty, and many Tories have never forgiven him. Anthony Seldon joins in their censure. But he and the Tory critics are both wrong. Let us assume that the Tories had won thirty more seats in 2010, ending up with a majority of 24. What would have happened? First of all, David Cameron would have had difficulties with his own party. After the 1992 Election, the then Chief Whip, Richard Ryder,  scented trouble: “We have a majority of 21. Yet on any issue you care to mention, I can field two elevens of loonies”. Thus it proved, and Mr Cameron would have had the same problem. Some inmates would have made regular attempts to take over the asylum, with the compulsively conspiratorial figure of David Davis encouraging every dissenter, inciting every rebellion: a dagger in a constant search for a shoulder blade. As the government  – inevitably – became unpopular given the economy’s failure to grow, party management would have been increasingly impossible.

While Tory discipline and morale were both crumbling, the government would have been assailed by the other parties. With the Liberals in opposition, Vince Cable would have been all the opposition’s de facto leader, a post for which he was wholly suited. Instead, he was an unhappy, grumbling and ineffective Minister. But he did perform one vital role, for which wise Tories should be eternally grateful. He gave cover to a radical government embarked on difficult reforms during a period of public spending restraint. That made David Cameron’s life vastly easier.

Mr Cameron has been a lucky politician. Labour choosing the lesser Milipede and then moving on to Jeremy Corbyn are the obvious examples. But it could be argued that the greatest of all strokes of luck was the failure to win outright in 2010. If David Cameron had done so, the Tories might well have come third in the popular vote this year. Ed Miliband would be Prime Minister, albeit in a Lab/Lib coalition. Ukip would have six seats. The Tories would be hopelessly split and divided; God help us, Boris Johnson might now be leader. The prospects for party and country would be immeasurably worse. The 2010 disappointment was a most fortunate outcome.

Even with the advantage of a coalition, governing was desperately hard, as this book brings out. David Cameron had prepared himself for  the Premiership. Although he had never held office, he had spent twenty years observing, thinking, planning. Towards the end of the Blair Premiership, Mr Cameron used to say that he almost felt sorry for his adversary. Tony Blair was like a man who had owned a wonderful Rolls-Royce for nearly a decade but had never learned to drive it properly. Now, at last, he did understand how to get the best out of his car – but it was too late. He had run out of road. Mr Cameron was not going to make the same mistake.

But there was a problem. “Events, dear boy, events,” was Harold Macmillan’s answer when asked about the hardest aspect of life in No.10. It has become a cliche, yet there is no wiser observation about the arduousness of being Prime Minister. Like all PMs, David Cameron was quickly fascinated by foreign affairs and international diplomacy. Even so, he had planned on a largely domestic agenda with EU matters firmly in the background. In Downing St, the best laid schemes gang aft agley. Our author is critical of Mr Cameron for failing to formulate and impose his own intellectual and strategic agenda. That is unfair, because it would have been impossible. The EU, the Arab spring, relations with Putin, relations with China: dealing with an American President who was usually reluctant to exercise leadership and who often made Jimmy Carter seem like Theodore Roosevelt: for David Cameron, there was no alternative to improvisation and expediency.  It is true that no foreign problem has been solved since 2010. It is also true that anyone who believes in solutions has not begun to understand the problems.

David Cameron did make mistakes. The first and worst was trusting his Health Secretary. Before 2010, Andrew Lansley had gained his Leader’s confidence by immersing himself in detail and spending large amounts of time with health professionals; he virtually spoke in NHS acronyms. Mr Cameron was instinctively opposed to any large-scale reorganisation of the NHS, but Mr Lansley pressed for a bill, to earn his place in history. Most of the changes which Mr Lansley proposed could have been introduced incrementally, without legislation. As it was, the bill became a focal point for opposition and gave Labour a further opportunity to claim that the Tories loathed the NHS.

It was also an error to insist on homosexual marriage. Alan Duncan, the Tories’ first avowed homosexual MP, thought that it was an unnecessary measure. There was an obvious risk that while the country was under the shadow of recession and the world was beset by instability, middle Britain would conclude that Mr Cameron and his friends were obsessed by metrosexual frivolities. Votes were lost, though not in fatal doses.

Finally, even after five years as Prime Minister, Mr Cameron has failed to define himself, impose his narrative on events and establish an undisputed tenancy of the central ground in British politics. This is partly due to the failure of his big idea, the Big Society. That is easily explained: it was always more an instinct than a concept. Mr Cameron had been brought up in an Oxfordshire village where civil society was daily custom and practice. People looked after each other: local activities and institutions flourished; there was almost a hint of Tolkein’s Shire. David Cameron thought that it would be good if the whole country worked like that. So it would. But that is not possible.

Nor was Mr Cameron’s closest advisor in 2010, Steve Hilton. At his best, Steve is brilliant. But there was a problem. He could never tell the difference between brilliance and balderdash. Although there is everything to be said for pushing back the frontiers of the possible, they cannot be eliminated altogether. Mr Hilton would have ten ideas before breakfast. One would be oustanding; half a dozen would be interesting, though requiring to be thought through. The other three would be daft. But Steve wanted them all implemented before lunchtime. Anthony Seldon underestimates the extent to which Steve Hilton was an impossible colleague. He was one of the most disruptive figures at the centre of government in the post-war era, in the Brown class. He did not rival Gordon Brown – no-one could – but was up there with George Brown, who had an excuse: he was always drunk. Even though Steve was sober, he would not adapt to the constraints of government: of reality.

That charge could never be made about Lynton Crosby. If I were the Tory high command, I would be unhappy about the sections dealing with Mr Crosby’s election planning; far too much trade-craft is revealed. Anyone wanting to win an election in any political system remotely comparable to the UK ought to study those pages, and make every party functionary do likewise.

One unlikely hero emerges from this book. George Osborne never had confidence in Iain Duncan Smith. Himself the possessor of a formidable and impatient intellect, Mr Osborne did not believe that IDS was bright enough to be in charge of welfare reform and universal credit. Mr Seldon argues that the Chancellor is being proved wrong, and the evidence in IDS’s favour is mounting. Although it is too early to reach a conclusion, it is possible that Mr Duncan Smith will turn out to have made the most important contibution to welfare since Beveridge. The quiet man has come into his own.

For Prime Ministers, quietness is not an option. Once that most unquiet man Steve Hilton had gone and the the Big Society had faded out of the rhetoric, Mr Cameron was thrown back on his own pragmatic instincts, which were sound. He should have trusted them more. Government should do what only government can do. Run the economy properly, strive for law and order, liberate state schools, prevent welfare being used to subsidise idleness, try to universalise best practice in the NHS – and within that benign framework, let society, big, middle-sized or small, look after itself.

In practice, that is a fair summary of the Cameron first term. It justifies Mr Seldon’s final verdict: “a figure of real historical interest and substance.” So is this book.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator