Cameron's travels: first in opposition, then as Prime Minister. Illustration: David Young.
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Captured Cameron: how David Cameron is tied down by his own party

Under pressure from party moderates, bullied by the Tory right, the Prime Minister seems caught in a trap of his own making.

There will be no party at the next general election promising more of the same. This is one of the ways that coalition has shredded British political precedent. A governing party usually tries to convince people that it deserves another term in office, while the opposition says it’s time for a change.

Next time, continuity will not be on the ballot paper. Labour will offer the most thorough upheaval but many Tories will also reject features of the government that David Cameron has led. To express authentic Conservative ambitions requires denouncing compromise with the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg must look relaxed about regime change, as long as he can inveigle his way into the new regime. Ukip will fulminate against all the parties currently represented at Westminster.

Every one of those factors limits the scope of a Cameron re-election campaign. Downing Street believes that economic recovery will be well enough established by May 2015 to allow a plausible claim that the country has been saved from ruin. A problem for the Prime Minister is the number of people on the government side ready to belittle his role as the supposed author of that success.

The Lib Dems will echo the Conservative economic story in so far as it tells of reckless Labour spending reined in by a coalition of fiscal disciplinarians. Beyond that, Clegg’s party intends to paint Cameron as the hostage of fanatics in his party who cannot be trusted to reduce a deficit without recourse to callousness.

On Cameron’s right flank are Tory MPs who give George Osborne’s austere budgets and stingy spending reviews only grudging approval. They see austerity as the launch pad for a more ambitious assault on the whole apparatus of British government inherited from the 20th century. This is not just an economic doctrine. It is a liberation theology. It supposes that the nation’s potential is suffocated by forces inimical to free enterprise – Brussels bureaucrats, Strasbourg judges, Whitehall civil servants, trade unions, public-sector lefties who resist academic rigour in state schools and measure social progress by the size of the benefits bill.

The clearest blueprint for this brand of turbo-Thatcherism is Britannia Unchained, a collection of essays published in autumn 2012 by five MPs from the 2010 parliamentary intake. One of them, Liz Truss, is now an education minister and is sometimes spoken of as a future party leader. The volume is a call to arms against “the siren voices of the statists who are happy for Britain to become a second-rate power in Europe, and a third-rate power in the world”.

Younger Tory radicals are not offended by Cameron’s indulgence of modern social mores. They are less likely than older colleagues to be appalled by homosexuality or working motherhood. Among supporters of a rebellious amendment to the government’s Immigration Bill on 30 January, in effect repudiating Britain’s signature on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), were several MPs who last year voted in favour of gay marriage. Dominic Raab, the 39-year-old Surrey MP who tabled the amendment, was one. What frustrates the new generation is the Prime Minister’s lack of crusader zeal to emancipate Albion from infidel regulation.

The Raab rebellion, rallying 85 Tory MPs, exquisitely probed Cameron’s weakness. The aim was to stop foreign criminals invoking the right to “a family life” as a defence against deportation, appealing to a strain of modern Conservatism that sees human rights law as a Continental virus ravaging indigenous justice.

In another context, the Prime Minister once said that the duty to comply with the ECHR made him feel “physically ill”. On this occasion, Downing Street let it be understood that he had “great sympathy” with the Raab rebels but could not endorse their proposal, because it contradicted existing statute. As a compromise, No 10 let government ministers abstain, leaving it to Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to make sure parliament honoured the law of the land.

It was a ridiculous abdication of prime ministerial responsibility but not a surprise. It has become routine for Cameron to placate his restive party at the expense of his credibility, especially when anything European is involved.

Each appeasement buys a shorter respite. Last year’s pledge to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and put the resulting settlement to the country in a referendum was meant to sate rebellious appetites and stem the flow of Conservative voters to Ukip – the concession to end all concessions. It failed.

Since then, Ukip has grown, not least because its supporters are enraged by a lot more than Britain’s membership of the EU. Meanwhile, Cameron has been forced to support a backbench motion enshrining the referendum pledge in law (binding the next parliament, in defiance of constitutional norms). When the Lords thwarted that manoeuvre, Downing Street indicated it might deploy the Parliament Act – a legislative battering ram reserved for a government’s most cherished priorities – to get the phantom plebiscite on to the statute book.

Backbenchers are also pestering No 10 to name the powers that might be “repatriated” from Brussels. They make demands – a halt to cross-border movement of labour, for example – that amount to withdrawal from the Union. This process ratchets Cameron ever further away from realistic negotiations with his Continental counterparts. In the past fortnight, both the French president and the German foreign minister have indicated that the EU will not rewrite its treaties to Cameron’s preferred timetable.

That suits the Tory militants just fine. Their goal is to ramp up expectations of “Brexit”, issuing unrealistic demands to justify the claim that Brussels apparatchiks are beyond redemption. Thus they tug Tory policy towards an unambiguous “better off out” position. It is hard to see how, if he is still prime minister after 2015, Cameron could sustain his current queasy Euro-pragmatism without facing a leadership challenge. With a year still to go, he will surely be prodded further towards the EU exit before polling day.

Downing Street hopes that recent rebellions represent a last spasm of indiscipline before MPs take fright at the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister and fall into line. While most of the parliamentary party is ready to unite in battle formation, there remains a kernel of safe-seated Tory extremists who see losing in 2015 as a staging post on the road to purification of party doctrines. Their next opportunity for organised disruption will come after the elections to the European Parliament this May. Ukip will perform well, possibly pushing the Tories into third place for the first time in a nationwide vote. No one doubts that this will provoke anxiety in Conservative ranks. The question is whether it will trigger prolonged panic.

Much depends on whether, in the intervening weeks, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls holds steady or dips towards parity with the Tories. The second scenario would suggest an economic dividend for the government, likely to grow in the run-up to a general election. That would support a view of May’s result as a self-contained protest vote. As one cabinet minister puts it: “The European elections will indicate as much about a general election as European elections always do, which is bugger all.”

However, if Labour’s poll lead is not soon whittled away, some Tories will start to calculate the rising probability that they are heading for opposition. “At that point, we go into the death spiral,” says a pessimistic MP. “The government will start to look like a mangy three-legged dog that needs to be put out of its misery.”

Nigel Farage’s popularity also has a psychological impact on Conservative associations that goes deeper than poll performance. He reminds members how uninspired they are by their own leader. Ukip has put the Tory grass roots in obstreperous mood. MPs do not dare ignore members’ concerns when high-handedness can be punished with deselection. An angry constituency association increasingly has a stronger hold over an MP than the whips’ office. Cameron is now at the bottom of the Tory chain of command with disgruntled activists at the top.

For a certain breed of Tory radical this is a healthy democratic development. More liberal-minded Conservatives see it as a continuation of the slide towards mean-spirited reaction that accounts for the party’s failure to win a majority since 1992.

There was enough concern on that front to mobilise a delegation of about 25 MPs last November to warn the Prime Minister against constant indulgence of the right-wing fringe. They were spurred into action by reports of Cameron’s dismissal of environmental policy as “green crap”, although their grumbles covered a wider range of problems. A particular source of irritation is the way the Prime Minister ignores loyalty and rewards rebellion.

It was, according to those involved, a heated exchange that left the complainants disappointed. Their intention had been to show Cameron that he could not keep taking the quiescence of his moderate MPs for granted but, in reality, he can. For all their frustration, they know that the current leadership is the most liberal one they are likely to get.

While civil war could break out if the Tories end up in opposition, the threat this side of an election is death by attrition. The rebels keep setting the agenda because Cameron’s emollient response gives them permission to do so. Moderate advisers and MPs in marginal seats are leaving, though many of them arrived in parliament as recently as 2010. Disproportionate numbers of those standing down are women. Louise Mensch quit in 2012. Lorraine Fullbrook won’t be contesting South Ribble, Jessica Lee is stepping down in Erewash and Laura Sandys, one the ringleaders of the moderates’ delegation to Cameron, is leaving South Thanet on the Kent coast. It is one of the seats that Farage is thought to be eyeing as a possible entry point to parliament.

Privately, many Tories concede that even a small exodus of women doesn’t look good. It feeds the public perception of a party in coagulation. The once-fluid culture of British Conservatism is shrivelling and hardening. Cameron has already proved that he cannot reverse this decline. Membership has halved on his watch.

The defence of his leadership is that the job is nigh impossible and that no one could have led the party better. The same argument is deployed to advertise his achievements as Prime Minister. In 2010 the country was in crisis, say Cameron’s allies, and the electorate had delivered an uncertain verdict. Yet, four years later, the coalition is still holding together, the economy is growing, the deficit is being tackled. This has been accomplished only because the Prime Minister has exhibited a combination of unyielding self-belief and intellectual agility. Thus, the two traits most often cited as Cameron’s failings – arrogance and lack of a fixed creed – are reconfigured as assets.

Yet underpinning this account is a recognition that the Prime Minister’s chief accomplishment is the running of a coalition, which will not be contesting the next election. He is par excellence the candidate of more of the same when there will be no party campaigning under that banner. There is an irresolvable tension between the man the Conservative Party proposes as prime minister – representing continuity – and its members who cry out against the status quo. That impulse might be suppressed for the duration of an election campaign but not for long afterwards.

By May 2015, David Cameron will have led the Tory party for ten years and the country for five. It was not clear to begin with what his ambitions were, other than to hold the title of prime minister, which is one reason why the voters denied him a majority. What he imagines doing with a second term is even more obscure. His leadership is defined by the constraints imposed on it. His political identity is a latticework of improvisation and compromise. His friends say his self-assured vagueness is his strength, in keeping with venerable traditions of well-meaning, patrician Tory pragmatism. That is indeed his best recommendation. But it also offers him up as a prime minister of the old school, marooned in a party and in an age that is restless for something new. 

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

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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