The Lucky General
One year into office, David Cameron has shown he can slash the budget and emerge unscathed. For now.
At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday morning, Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour party, compared David Cameron to Harry Flashman, the antihero of George Macdonald Fraser’s Victorian-era historical novels. Flashman — for those less-than-familiar with Fraser’s work — is an aristocrat, a bully, a cad, and a coward.
It is an unusual, and not particularly promising, line of attack on the one-year anniversary of Cameron’s appointment as prime minister. Apart from other considerations, Cameron’s wealthy background (and the privileged upbringings enjoyed by many of his cabinet colleagues) is hardly a secret. Suggesting that rich, privately educated politicians must be out-of-touch with mainstream Britain did not work for Labour in last year’s election; it is hard, even in times of austerity, to see why it should suddenly work now. And there’s another matter that makes the Flashman line of attack odd: Whatever his personal faults, Flashman’s ignoble adventures always end in undeserved triumph.
Perhaps there’s some merit to the analogy after all. Flashman’s (fictional) career is blessed with unearned good fortune; similarly David Cameron has been the regular beneficiary of fortuitous circumstance.
If luck was the quality Napoleon most prized in his generals, he would have seen much to admire in the British prime minister. First, he won the Tory leadership contest in 2005 despite coming in second on the first ballot. Then, he was fortunate enough to be up against Gordon Brown, a heroically unpopular prime minister who led Britain into the worst recession in more than 30 years. And finally, when he failed to win a majority, the parliamentary arithmetic was such that a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was the only viable option available.
Cameron, to his credit, had the courage and the vision to make a virtue out of the latter necessity. The coalition, he insisted, would be a government “working together in the national interest.”
Unbowed by the lack of a majority, Cameron now leads a government that even in more secure circumstances might be thought recklessly ambitious. Not content with eliminating Britain’s structural deficit in five years, the government is pushing ahead with plans to free schools from state control, a radical ten-years-in-the-delivery welfare-reform program, and a hugely contentious plan to reform the National Health Service, which will open it to private competition and healthcare provision. Any one of these could stand as a signature achievement; attempting all four at once in a time of sluggish economic growth testifies to Cameron’s ambition or, as his critics aver, hubris.
A central part of the Cameron project has been preserving the Tory makeover. Tony Blair had seen off three ineffectual Tory leaders before Cameron became leader in 2005. The Conservatives were perceived, fairly or not, as the “Nasty Party”. Cameron’s task was to “detoxify” the Tory brand, presenting the party as modern, moderate, inclusive, tolerant and newly-interested in non-traditional Tory issues such as the environment or gay rights.
In many respects, Cameron has modeled himself as a throwback Tory leader. He may be one of Thatcher’s Children but his leadership style also owes something to the Tory patricians of the past, most notably Harold Macmillan. When the need arises he can bare his teeth — as when he lead the charge to defeat a referendum on electoral reform that had been a key concession granted to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats during the coalition’s negotiations — but most of the time his style is more emollient, even soothing. He aspires to be chairman of the board, not chief executive officer. Sometimes that means the detail of individual policies is lost in the quest for the bigger picture, but Cameron retains an unflappable faith in his ability to manage his squabbling ministers.
The Tory right fear the coalition will be dragged to the left, especially on contentious issues such as crime, immigration, and partnership with Europe. Cameron’s coalition partners, meanwhile, fear they are being used as “human shields,” according to a Clegg advisor, blamed for everything that is unpopular and receiving no credit for any government achievements. At times it suits the prime minister to play one faction off against the other — but he is also aware that he cannot allow it to seem, as Clegg has suggested, that the Liberal Democrats are smoothing the “rough edges” off the Tories or acting as a brake or “moderating influence” on the coalition. On the contrary, says Cameron, “We are an influence on each other, because of our different histories and traditions and policies.” The Prime Minister’s critics on the right of his own party fear that he really means this.
Cameron has invested hopes that the public won’t be unnerved by the coalition’s active economic and foreign policy — or annoyed by the prime minister’s reversals. Cameron, who once said you cannot “impose democracy from 30,000 feet,” has put himself at the forefront of the Libyan conflict, stumbling into interventionism almost by accident. Here too he appears blessed by fortune: Voters seem unconcerned by the risks or uncertainties of the Libyan adventure. Polls suggest the public is evenly divided on the merits of the intervention but few consider it an issue of vital importance, far less one that will determine their vote.
Still, even some of Cameron’s admirers wonder if the government is trying to do too much, too fast. Deficit reduction is widely considered necessary — “The planned fiscal consolidation,” the OECD reported in March, “is needed to ensure that the fiscal position will be sustainable over time” — but an increase in VAT has slowed economic recovery, while rising inflation has prompted fears that the Age of Austerity will give way to an Era of Stagflation. Growth had been flat for the past two quarters and the Bank of England, the new independent Office for Budgetary Responsibility, and the OECD have each downgraded their growth forecasts for the current fiscal year. According to estimates, the economy will only grow by 1.5 percent this year.
All is not well. In recent months, students have protested and rioted against plans to treble university tuition fees, while the Labour party and the trades unions have marched through London demanding an end to the austerity reforms. The coalition government now has a 22 approval rating; for most of the past year, Labour, boosted by leftist Liberal Democrat voters returning to the Labour fold, has enjoyed a lead in the opinion polls.
Despite all that, Cameron has reasons to be satisfied. The weakness of the pound has boosted exports and manufacturing. Unemployment, meanwhile, is slowly falling, despite a large reduction in the number of government-paid workers. And while three-quarters of voters think the economy is one of the most pressing issues facing the government, just 11 percent of voters say Labour is “prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions” – 55 percent of the electorate believe Cameron’s Conservatives will do so. Equally, for all the managing of the tug-of-war between the Liberal Democrats on his left and the Tory on his right, Cameron’s base still supports him: 94 percent of current Tory supporters think he is performing well.
Cameron is playing a long-game, trusting that the economy will recover in due course. His government has intentionally peddled a gloomy message for much of its first year, insisting that it is better to make hard decisions now. Cuts to government spending have dominated the agenda and provided the soundtrack to the coalition’s first year, but the prime minister is betting that the tune will change in due course.
If Cameron seems preternaturally confident in his far-from-modest agenda, it’s not because his privileged upbringing shielded him from hardship. It’s that his career has taught him that you can make your own good luck by working to ensure you’re in the right place (physically and politically) at the right time — by grabbing History’s coattails as it marches past, as Otto von Bismarck, an aristocratic political leader from an earlier century (and a more apt analogue for the current prime minister than the hapless dilettante Flashman), once put it. Maintaining his lucky streak in the years ahead will help Cameron realize his promise, but he also knows that luck alone won’t be enough.
Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
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