5 April 2016

It’s time for Cameron to lead or leave


There are still more than eighty days to go before the EU referendum: long enough for Phileas Fogg to travel round the world; long enough for tedium to drive the British electorate into a catatonic stupor. Also, long enough for the Prime Minister to assert his control and to demonstrate that he is the most formidable performer in British politics. But politics is the key. Over the past three weeks, the government has stumbled into difficulties because of its political ineptitude.

Everything began to go wrong with the budget. On the day, George Osborne gave an assured performance, demonstrating easy intellectual mastery. Within 48 hours, it began to fall apart. To some extent, this was due to circumstances outside the Chancellor’s control. If a senior Minister who is also a former Leader of the party is determined to cause chaos, there is going to be a degree of chaos. Even so, that could have been containable. People should have been gently reminded that Iain Duncan Smith was the worst leader the Tory party has ever had. It should also have been pointed out that the benefit in dispute had been introduced by this government, and that the sum under discussion was a tiny fraction of the welfare budget. Instead, paralysis took over, and the problem was exacerbated beyond any necessary measure by the government’s chronic and sustained political incompetence: by the Prime Minister’s obstinate refusal to explain himself and his ideas.

Almost everyone had a sense of who Mrs Thatcher was. Although it may have been inaccurate and over-simplified, it did help her to impose the government’s narrative on events: to convince enough voters that even if they did not warm to her or her policies, there was no alternative. Tony Blair was more complicated, more incoherent and more protean. But he used his personality to be a serial seducer of public opinion. In his own way, he too beguiled many people to believe that there was no alternative.

David Cameron is more intellectually self-confident than Margaret Thatcher and considerably more intellectually sophisticated. Unlike Tony Blair, he can think through complex problems. Unlike either of those two formidable predecessors, he has a firm grasp on reality. He never has to be reminded that we are living in a difficult world, as he made clear in his response to the steel crisis. This intellectual sophistication makes it harder to reduce ideas and policies to a clear line of narrative, and his one attempt to do so, the Big Society, flopped. But that is an argument for trying harder, not for giving up.

Here, we encounter a difficulty. The PM has a psychological problem which would not be a handicap – could even be an asset – in other careers, but is a grave disadvantage in politics. He is far too rational; far too comfortable in his own skin. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were incomplete characters who required external validation. One suspects that something similar was true of Tony Blair, virtually an emotional vampire. By contrast, David Cameron is appallingly well-balanced. Far from being able to persuade the voters that he feels their pain, he would regard it as undignified, even insulting, to try.

But this time, there was an alternative. He did not have to indulge in Blairite love-ins. As he could not help being a rationalist, he should have behaved like one and just set out the facts. How many voters know that the government is spending around £12,000 a year for every man, woman and child in this country? How many people are aware that after inflation (if there is any) the government will spend an additional £10 billion on health in the course of this Parliament? In real people’s money, that is around £150 a head. On tax, the top one percent are paying more in both aggregate and percentage terms than they have for several decades. Why has this been kept secret from the voters? If those figures were well-known, George Osborne’s task would have been immeasurably easier. Because the government has failed to make its case, the impression has been given that senior ministers are addicted to austerity. In truth, they could be accused of the opposite fault: tolerating a dangerously high level of public borrowing. Keynes himself might well have regarded the current deficit as unacceptably high. Publicise the figures, and the charge of austerity would instantly be dismissed.

A more political government would also have found it easier to deal with the steel crisis. While it would be absurd to claim that better presentation could have alleviated the global over-production of steel, there ought to have been an early-warning system in place, so that the Tata degringolade did not just stun the world. A strategy should have been prepared, so that defensive arguments could be mobilised. There might not be a satisfactory outcome, but the government would have seemed to be in charge.

Beyond steel, there are other arguments which would not be easy to win. Professor Laffer has proved that lower tax rates can lead to higher tax revenues. Many voters would find that counter-intuitive, but that is why we have politicians: to argue, to convince – to lead. Mr Cameron has not tried to move beyond ‘We’re all in this together’, which usually sounded like the curate trying to jolly along the church outing, when it is pissing with rain and someone has forgotten the sandwiches.

Most governments boast and try to take credit when they do not deserve It. This one is not only the exception. It is the opposite. The PM has sought to reinforce this reticence by denying himself the infrastructure of politics. Andrew Feldman, the Party Chairman, is an excellent fellow, a good administrator and a first-rate fund-raiser. When it comes to politics, he neither knows nor cares. There are arguments for reforming the way in which the Tories organise themselves at local level. So why not have a debate, lead the party’s volunteers along gently and make them feel that the proposed changes are in everyone’s interests? Instead, quarter-baked and vaguely threatening suggestions found their way to the press, a few weeks before a referendum in which the voluntary party’s efforts will be crucial. For ten years, David Cameron has been urged to supplement Lord Feldman with a powerful figure who could both go on the Today programme and enthuse the party in the country. perhaps it is the excessive rationalism which makes the PM fail to see that these tasks are vital.

Then there is the press operation. David Cameron did have a really able press spokesman, Andy Coulson who, alas, is no longer available. His replacement, Craig Oliver, is a largely unknown figure with a lot to be unknown about. In terms of pounds per unit of output, he is one of the most overpaid officials in the history of modern government. No.10 is full of able advisors. In twenty years’ time, young historians will be writing doctorates on their endeavours. What a pity if they were also to be cited by ‘what if’ historians, along the lines of ‘this is what would have happened of the Cameron government and the Tory party had not slid into chaos after the Euro-referendum.’

There is no time to remedy the longer-term weaknesses before June 23.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator