Cameron has morphed into the candidate the Tories wanted in 2010. What do they want in 2015?

The PM has found the campaign that the Tories wish they had used to win the last election. That is less than he needs to win the next one.

Three years late, the Conservatives are celebrating victory in the 2010 general election. They still don’t have a majority in parliament but they believe they have won the argument. Labour forfeited its right to govern – so the story goes – by presiding over economic calamity, squandering public money on benefits and opening Britain’s borders to an army of foreigners. The remedy was a Tory government that would cut spending, reform welfare and cap immigration.
 
At the party’s annual conference in Manchester, David Cameron and George Osborne will say their methods are vindicated by incipient economic recovery. Some Tories concede that the truth is more complicated but there is little doubt over who is winning the politics of blame and credit. “The economic argument is not as clear-cut as we’re making out but George has played it well,” says one Conservative adviser.
 
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will avoid sounding boastful at the conference. They aren’t stupid. They know that the recovery is more legible on paper than it is palpable in pockets. Bills are rising; wages aren’t. In his speech at Labour’s conference, Ed Miliband accused the Tory leader of planning an undeserved “lap of honour”.
 
Cameron won’t oblige with crass claims of missions accomplished. Nor will he respond directly to the charge that the Tories are presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. Downing Street knows it has to do something to help struggling households but that task will be addressed later in the year, in a series of policy announcements building up to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.
 
At the Tory party conference, the message will be that the Conservatives are on the side of industrious people, while Labour favours freeloaders (domestic and foreign). What excites Tory strategists is that, after three years in office, they feel they have a record to support their argument. They also feel that the party’s MPs are happy with the message and well drilled at delivering it. Effort spent at summer garden parties mending relations between No 10 and backbenchers – the “barbecue offensive” – appears to have paid off. That doesn’t mean the Conservative Party automatically does the Prime Minister’s bidding, as his defeat in the vote on military intervention in Syria proved. But a year ago, such a rebellion would have triggered leadership speculation and lurid tales of panic in the ranks. This time, the disturbance was quickly contained. Cameron wriggled out of his foreign policy humiliation within 24 hours. His spin operation has become sharper and the number of Tory MPs who want nothing more than to hurt him has dwindled to manageable proportions.
 
Labour has watched this transformation with dismay. The Tories can no longer be relied on to deliver a steady flow of bungles. The new ruthlessness and discipline of the Conservative machine is noted with grudging respect by shadow ministers. Tories who once despaired of the way Downing Street was run now speak in reverential tones about Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign director and the man credited with sharpening the party’s sense of strategic purpose.
 
But there is a difference between attacking the opposition harder and governing better. There are also great gaps between what Cameron and Osborne say they are achieving and what has actually been achieved. The deficit and public debt have not been trimmed to anything like the extent that was promised in 2010. Claims to have cracked down on immigration will look shaky when the controls that restricted labour migration from Bulgaria and Romania as a condition of their EU membership are lifted in January. The government’s flagship welfare reform – Universal Credit – has shrivelled from a national revolution in the benefits system to a pilot scheme in Ashton-under-Lyne. With it has shrunk the moral authority of Iain Duncan Smith, who sold Universal Credit as an emblem of “compassionate Conservatism” – easing the path from benefits to work, not just shredding the social safety net.
 
Labour has waited in vain for the public to recoil at the wounds inflicted by the Chancellor’s axe. MPs on both sides note the equanimity with which their constituents have tolerated the hardships of recent years. There is a stoical acceptance of financial insecurity as a force of nature rather than a consequence of government policy. As one Tory MP in a bellwether constituency tells me: “People don’t love us but I don’t get the sense that they are desperate to get rid of us.”
 
Others are less relaxed. “I’d like to show George around parts of my constituency to let him see what poverty really looks like,” says one Conservative defending a marginal seat. The Tories still struggle to shed their image as a favour factory for the rich and powerful. Cameron has steadied his party’s nerves but he hasn’t established what one influential backbencher describes as “a morality behind the narrative”.
 
In the conference hall, Cameron will be unchallenged. He will fight the next election as Tory leader. However, in the hotel bars, the gossip will revert to the discreet beauty contest among potential contenders for the succession – Michael Gove, Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, George Osborne – because Tories also know that outright victory in the next election is still a remote prospect.
 
The criticism that Tories habitually level against Cameron is that he lacks fixed beliefs and that he changes his political clothes to suit the weather. With the help of Lynton Crosby’s natty tailoring, Cameron has at last found a costume to match his party’s tastes. He has persuaded the Conservatives that he really is their leader but he hasn’t imprinted his own politics on them. He is secure and confident because he has found the campaign that the Tories wish they had used to win the last election. That is less than he needs to win the next one.
David Cameron prepapres to greet his New Zealand counterpart John Key ahead of a meeting in Downing Street on September 18, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”