Cameron’s wrong course

The Prime Minister is wasting his talents, and his luck

9 February 2013

Never has a government been better at exasperating its own supporters; rarely has a government been so politically inept.

The Tories have formidable advantages. Even in the miseries of an economic crisis, they are only seven points behind in the polls and are almost holding on to their general election percentage. If Margaret Thatcher had been doing this well in mid-parliament, she would have wondered what she was doing wrong. Ed Miliband lacks Michael Foot’s eloquence, Neil Kinnock’s occasional flashes of electability and David Miliband’s political weight. Ed Balls combines intellectual incoherence with the charm of a pit bull terrier. Apropos charm, Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman overflow with warmth, generosity of spirit and appeal to the aspirational classes.

So David Cameron is lucky in his principal opponents: even luckier in his failure to win outright in 2010. Suppose he had gained a majority of, say, 21, as John Major did in 1992. David Davis, Mark Reckless, Douglas Cars-well and others would be in permanent session, deciding how to re-enact the crucifixion of Mr Major. The Liberals, under their de facto leader Vince Cable, an outstanding opposition politician, would be opposing every cut. Even if Clogg and Milipede minor were grumbling about being overshadowed, that would avail the Tories naught. They would be in third place, with a constant leadership crisis and no apparent hope of -recovery.

In view of the PM’s good fortune, wise Tories could have grounds for wary, covert complacency — if only the leadership would exploit its opportunities. In Mrs Thatcher’s worst travails, she retained one advantage. Millions of middle-class voters felt that she was on their side: that she understood them. Few people feel that about David Cameron. He has won respect but little affection, even in his own party. Nor does he try to elicit it. Whatever one’s views about homosexual marriage, the timing is abominable. Throughout the UK, tens of millions of people are worried, about the economy, the state of the country: their own prospects, their children’s prospects, the world’s prospects. You name it, they are worried about it. How many of those anxieties will be assuaged by the thought that homosexuals might be able to call themselves married?


There is a difficulty. David Cameron takes his religion for granted. He does not seem to realise that other people take their religion seriously. The PM has compared his faith to the reception of a local radio station in the Chilterns: it comes and goes. His is a vaguely pantheistic, sherry-with-the-vicar sort of Anglicanism — less of a religion than an inoculation against religion. He is not alone in that, but even if England is in many ways a post-religious society, the concept of marriage evokes widespread reverence. To many natural Tories, it seems irreverent that a Conservative prime minister should feel entitled to redefine marriage. That earlier Oxfordshire Tory, Lord Falkland, said that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change: the wisest of Tory maxims, which Mr Cameron ought to have heeded.

Of itself, homosexual marriage will not have much electoral influence, but it could confirm two related, widespread and negative impressions. The first is that David Cameron and those around him, rich enough to be insulated against ordinary people’s concerns, feel entitled to indulge in metropolitan fads — when they should be sorting out the economy. The second is that Tory England is losing the culture wars: that Cameronism is only a meniscus on top of an increasingly alien public culture. The Blairites, who did not like England, tried to sunder it from its history and turn it into another country. This Prime Minister is not Tory enough to wish to reclaim history: to mobilise the real, deep-down England and throw off the Blairite infections.

That is not true, yet I meet an increasing number of thoughtful people who believe it. This is the PM’s fault. It is his political failure. David Cameron is good at governing. Look at the events of the last few days. He was commanding and authoritative: just what a prime minister ought to be. He is also good at politics, when he tries. The party conference speech, the speech on Europe: both outstanding. He is easily the strongest figure in the Commons.

He does not try anything like often enough. Where politics is concerned, this is an essay-crisis PM. When he has to, he will sport his oak, brew a pot of strong coffee, address his desk, and solve everything by dawn. But why not try to hit the crisis with a pre-emptive strike? There is too much of George Bush senior. He was good at governing but regarded politics as a regrettable necessity. Bill Clinton did not make that mistake. Because of the PM’s political lassitude, a wholly erroneous impression has gained credence. A lot of people think that this is a weak government, in the grip of spin. That is the opposite of the truth. On the economy, this government has been strong. Anyone who thinks that Mr Cameron is weak on Europe should talk to some Europeans. On welfare and health, Mr Cameron and his ministers have tackled problems which Margaret Thatcher sidestepped.

Above all, there is education, equally neglected under Mrs Thatcher. For decades, there has been a Gramsci-ite long march through British education, with the aim of turning schools into socialist seminaries. As a result, large numbers of school-leavers are unemployable. Millions of middle-class parents are terrified that their children, condemned to a bog-standard comprehensive, will emerge semi-literate and proletarianised. Now, there is hope. Michael Gove is fighting the education culture war, and winning it. That is why the left hates him. So why is hardly anyone else aware of his successes?

That brings us to spin: what spin? This government’s entire propaganda endeavours since 2010 are not worth ten minutes of Bernard Ingham in his prime. In No. 10, Mr Cameron has assembled an outstanding team of policy advisers. Since the departure of that master of uncreative destruction, Steve Hilton, it has been the best in British political history. Yet its members are kept behind the arras and forbidden to enhance the government’s political firepower. The Tory party chairman, young Grant Shapps, is a promising fellow, but he does not have the weight to be Cecil Parkinson in the run-up to the 1983 election, Chris Patten before 1992 or Michael Heseltine in the mid-1990s. David Cameron urgently needs a senior political figure to help with the essays. He also ought to communicate better before the crises arise.

Mr Cameron takes himself for granted, as well as his religion. He knows who he is and what he believes. It is easy to summarise: ‘improving the condition of Britain’. He needs to explain that: to take the people of Britain into his confidence; to assuage his supporters’ exasperation. There is still enough time, but he ought to get on with it.

More Spectator for less. Subscribe and receive 12 issues delivered for just £12, with full web and app access. Join us now.

  • Rick Evans

    Cameron is toast.

    Vote UKIP.

    • perdix

      Vote ukiup, get labour get more Europe and Socialism.

      • Rick Evans

        You still don’t get it, do you?

        I have voted Conservative at every election since I turned 18. But I would vote Labour to get rid of Cameron.

        I detest the man.

  • Vulture

    THis is a truly historic piece. Bruce Anderson, most slavishly sychophantic of Tory journalists, who has blindly backed every leader since Thatcher ( which has involved him in political contortions dangerous for a man of his great girth). Brucie baby, the Vicar of Bray of Tory politics has finally turned.

    Well, sort of. But when Bruce voices this sort of mild critique you know that Dave is truly in the deepest doodie.

    But its got worse even since Bruce penned his piece: little Govey, the one Minister singled out for praise in the article, has been forced to reverse the Govt’s flagship schools policy – about the only Tory thing that its doing – because it doesn’t accord with the orders of the EU – this country’s real rulers.

    Eastleigh voters will now have a change to pronounce a plague on the LibLabCon con and if Dave loses it will be down to Tory MPs to wake up and stuff Cameron. (So I’m not waiting up).

  • maurice12brady

    Seriously? — As a sober & contemplative contribution to the merits or otherwise of Dave’s stewardship — This faux diatribe is the equivalent of Howe’s ‘savaging by a dead sheep’ — Come to think of it, it also has the feel of emanating from that period! Were one to sit & conjure the ghosts (literally) of M.Foot & (metaphorically) of N. Kinnock — & depict them as worthy as you have done — Calls into question your grasp on political realism. The former was an intellectual & a ‘stop-gap’ leader who overstayed his tenure, the latter was (is) a gifted orator (windbag) who talked himself up a ‘dead-end’ — Thatcher was fortunate in her opponents — Not challenged by them! If these two disparate party leaders (Thatcher & Cameron) have anything in common it’s the quality of the opposition. In spite of this advantage, Dave has contrived to manufacture an array of obstacles & antagonists — more than even Kinnock managed. This PM is educated — But stupid! He is wealthy & arrogant — & sets himself apart from the poor & the less pretentious in our society. Celebrity is a big draw to his superficiality. He is of a capricious turn of mind — The concept – nay the comprehension – of deeply held beliefs is anathema to his philosophy of ‘popular approval’ — He is in short — Unsuitable — Was he ever anything other?

  • Geo Shepherd

    Cameron will be gone shortly after GE 2015 – Who’s next?
    ps Bruce your piece is dated 9th Feb
    But obviously it was written before Gove’s omnishambles u-turn today?

  • chris_xxxx

    Cameron is gone in 2014 hopefully and definitely in 2015. Nobody believes his EU referendum in 2017. Membership of the Tory party has halved since he became leader.

    Vote UKIP.

    • perdix

      Vote Conservative.

  • http://twitter.com/Waltroon Walter Ellis

    Possibly worth mentioning that Cameron seems to have brought home the bacon (possibly horsemeat) from Brussels. And Gove’s U-turn on GCSEs won’t excite the electorate much. Most of them believe he’s on the right track generally, and those who don’t have never trusted him anyway.

    Eastleigh will be a test of something. Exactly what, it’s hard to say. Ukip don’t seem to be cock-a-hoop about their prospects; nor do the Tories; ditto the Lib Dems; and Labour know they haven’t an earthly. Someone will win, and when they do they will claim it as the start of a new era of change. But it won’t be, it will simply be another confused by-election.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Well its seems Anderson has taken the time to remove one lip from Cameron’s arse for 10 minutes at least. If Brucie baby is concerned Cameron’s in deep doo-doo but there again whilst Cameron may make an adequate PM he is probably the worst Tory leader in living memory. As for the people he has around him are the political equivalent of the the Monty Python ‘Twit Olympics':


    If ever there was an example of Bufton-Tufton Tory Twits this is it…….

  • Gareth

    This picture of Cameron, the effective governor, is not one I recognise in the slightest. More accurate would be to say that Cameron thinks he can solve the nation’s problems by dawn: he can’t, he hasn’t, he won’t.

  • http://twitter.com/TerrydeMoueux TerryField

    This government is a marketing entity. It does not have beliefs, it has negotiated positions.
    The British disaster zone can not be mended by negotiated positions.

  • disqus_njW4WuWjqt

    Why is this government so politically inept? Mr. Cameron be thinking of to increase female quotient in marriage against resistance form Mrs. Miller and to introduce a Scottish monarchy with seat in John o’ Groats together with making EMP be democratically elected.

  • http://twitter.com/1946Timbo Timbo46

    Most of us, whatever
    our political persuasion, have a sort of political compass that tells
    us, instinctively, the approach that is most appropriate to a given
    situation. We use our instincts and harness them to the moment.

    On the other hand,
    Cameron is somehow completely detached from the instincts and
    sentiments of his party. He uses intellectual contrivance to
    rationalise those instincts to suit his own agenda. Opposition from
    his own grassroots and MPs is simply interpreted as their failure to
    appreciate the “rightness” of the views he holds. This
    catastrophe in the making is compounded by the fact that he surrounds
    himself with compliant, like-minded and powerful colleagues. Worse
    still, he has created a sort of Party Central operation that manages
    to neutralise lines of communication and cohesion between and from
    those dissenters. To cap it all, his complete lack of political
    resonance within his own party is something he simply cannot
    understand. Angus Maud’s persistent lack of sympathy with his own
    party’s membership sums it up. With this lot in charge, Labour has
    nothing to worry about.

  • Radford_NG

    A question for David Cameron: “What colour is the sky in the world where you live? “.

  • nick

    I am one who will not vote for him or Conservatives. He has done a disservice to the party and the country and he and the Liberals can go hang!

  • http://twitter.com/bencorde ben corde

    Wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. All that rubbish about a victory over the EU budget cuts was just plain hokum. The EU parliament hasn’t agreed anything yet and won’t. He knows damn well he can’t repatriate powers back to the UK it just isn’t possible without leaving the EU. Only UKIP will give us the chance to make our decision on whether we want to be an independent nation and not a subjugated state to the tyranny of the EU . This is why we will never again vote for the LIB/LAB/CON establishment. As Winston Churchill said in the Commons ‘If ever we have to choose between Europe and the open sea, we must choose the open sea’

  • bengeo

    By Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times

    February 10, 2013, 9:08 p.m.

    LONDON — For David Cameron, the worst-case scenario for Britain’s future looks something like this:

    It’s 2018, and he’s in his second term as prime minister. Against his advice, his country has just ripped up its membership card in the European Union, alienating its biggest trading partner and closest neighbours. That prompts Washington to seek a new ally to advocate U.S. interests across the Atlantic; suddenly, the Anglo-American “special relationship” is a little less special.

    Great Britain is also a little less great. To Cameron’s dismay, Scotland has separated from England and Wales to become an independent nation. A marriage that had held for more than three centuries is over, the rights to North Sea oil are in dispute and Britain’s four nuclear submarines have been banished from their home bases in the Scottish lochs.

    The vision of a Britain diminished in size at home and in influence abroad is a bleak one. But it’s a nightmare Cameron and his compatriots could wake up to, depending on the outcome of two momentous referendums that voters here could face in the next five years.

Can't find your Web ID? Click here