Cameron's travels: first in opposition, then as Prime Minister. Illustration: David Young.
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The Brexit odd squad

The Brexiters are resilient and have the support of some unlikely foreign allies. Can they really topple the political establishment and lead Britain out of the European Union?

Look at the troops arrayed on the Leave and the Remain sides in the June referendum and you might think that our continued membership of the European Union is assured. On the side of staying in the EU are Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, most members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry, the governor of the Bank of England, the head of the NHS, Britain’s three largest trade unions and the US president. Leave has Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few expect the final result of Britain’s In/Out referendum to be as asymmetric as that roll-call would suggest. At the top of the pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe, there is no doubt: it could lose.

So what – and who – is responsible for the unlikely appeal of Brexit’s “odd squad”? And how do they work together when their side is so fractious and its big personalities seem so uninterested in teamwork?

The story begins on the morning of 20 February, when David Cameron summoned his cabinet to announce the results of his EU renegotiation and ask his ministers to support Britain’s continued membership of the Union. Those who did left by the front door; the six dissidents were asked to leave by the tradesman’s entrance.

Nipping out the back were the full cabinet members Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale, plus the employment minister, Priti Patel, who has the right to attend cabinet meetings. They soon reconvened at Vote Leave’s headquarters, a nondescript tower block in Westminster, where they posed with a giant sign bearing the campaign’s slogan “Vote Leave, take control” – a sight more reminiscent of a group of local councillors vowing to protect a bus lane than the upper reaches of the British political class.

Then again, the cabinet Leavers are not, on the whole, an impressive bunch. Villiers and Grayling were among the casualties of the formation of the coalition government in 2010, moving from their briefs to make way for Lib Dems, and both had to be content with junior posts until the 2012 reshuffle. Since then, Villiers has been a competent if uninspiring operator in Northern Ireland. Grayling was widely held to be a failure at the Ministry of Justice and now serves as Leader of the House of Commons, historically the antechamber between full cabinet rank and the wilderness.

As for Whittingdale, he is that rare creature in Whitehall: a secretary of state for culture, media and sport who does not regard the post as a stepping stone to bigger things. As the recent white paper on the future of the BBC showed, the golden thread of his thinking is scepticism: towards the EU, the BBC and regulation of the press. He was Margaret Thatcher’s last political secretary in Downing Street and, after becoming an MP in the 1992 election, he set up meetings between the former prime minister and his fellow new boys from the 1992 intake – meetings that John Major blamed for fanning the flames of Eurosceptic rebellion in the dog days of his premiership.

Priti Patel also has impeccable Eurosceptic credentials. She cut her teeth as a press officer to the Referendum Party, set up in a doomed attempt to secure an In/Out referendum in 1997. Following William Hague’s election as Tory leader and the adoption of complete hostility towards the single currency, she joined the Conservative Party, becoming an MP in 2010.

She is best known for contributing to Britannia Unchained, a series of essays by Patel and four of her fellow 2010-ers (including Dominic Raab, widely expected to run for the Tory leadership next time). The book was intended to provide the intellectual ballast for a revivified Thatcherism, though the only part that attracted headlines was the claim that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”.

This dubious crew of ministerial heavyweights has grown marginally more likeable since Duncan Smith’s resignation as work and pensions secretary. Yet it is not his six-year tenure as a minister but his two-year stint as Tory leader that has left the biggest mark on the Brexit debate, with his former hires among the loudest advocates for a Leave vote – including the founding editor of ConservativeHome, Tim Montgomerie, now at Gove’s old newspaper the Times. (In the unhappiest periods of Cameron’s first term, when the Prime Minister was frequently criticised by Montgomerie in that newspaper, Cameroons would mutter about the irony that one of their sharpest critics had served as chief of staff to the least successful leader of the Conservative Party in its history.)

As for Michael Gove, though he is loved by lobby journalists, he remains a hate figure in the country at large and particularly among teachers, as a result of his belligerent tactics during his time as secretary of state for education.

***

The last of the senior Brexit-supporting Tories didn’t leave through the back door that morning because he hadn’t yet declared his position. That came the next day, in a media scrum outside his home in Islington, north London.

The former mayor of London Boris Johnson is still Britain’s most popular politician, surviving crises and scandals that would have left others dead in the water. He is also the only politician whom the Remain campaign truly fears. But Johnson is not a wholly congenial presence among Britain’s Brexiters. Although he is a far more adept planner than his dishevelled appearance – or his paper-thin record at City Hall – would suggest, he can be difficult to manage. His  weekly Telegraph column has largely been turned to cheerleading for Brexit but Vote Leave’s biggest gun doesn’t always point in the direction its chief strategists would like.

During Barack Obama’s visit to the UK in April, Johnson became embroiled in a war of words in which he suggested that the president had an ancestral dislike of Britain because of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Having made this racially charged argument in the Sun, he extended the story needlessly by giving a similarly robust interview to the Daily Mail, much to the frustration of staffers at Vote Leave.

So there you have it. An unpopular firebrand, an unsuccessful former Tory leader, four relative nonentities and a blond bombshell who is considered clever but uncontrollable. It is less a huddle of Big Beasts than a grotesque menagerie – and these are among the sensible, mainstream voices on the Leave side. The other politicians who can get on to the Sunday shows to talk Brexit include Nigel Farage, who is adored by the four million people in Britain who voted Ukip in last year’s general election – and hated by the remaining 42 million. Yet he is a national treasure compared to George Galloway, formerly of Labour, who secured just 37,000 votes in the mayoral election. An unkind observer might say that none of the Brexit-backing politicians can stop traffic: half of them because they are unknown and the other half because most people would quite like to run them over.

There are also few compelling figures from business, sport, entertainment and science backing Brexit. Ian Botham is a rare celebrity Outer. “Cricket is a game where you achieve the greatest success when you are confident in your own ability to go out and stand proud,” he wrote in the Sunday Times. “Britain has that spirit.” In April, a slew of acts withdrew from a gig in Birmingham after finding out that it was organised by Leave.EU. Only Phats & Small, whose last hit was in 1999, refused to pull out.

Then there’s the infighting. To give just one example of the ongoing civil war, Vote Leave – the officially recognised campaign group for Brexit – believes Farage is so toxic to its cause that it regards his invitation to appear in a TV discussion alongside Cameron as an establishment stitch-up. “ITV has effectively joined the official In campaign,” said a Vote Leave statement to journalists on 11 May, written by Dominic Cummings, the campaign’s director. “There will be consequences for its future – the people in No 10 won’t be there for long.”

***

In the light of all this, why are the pro-Europeans so worried? Many feel that the current campaign is beginning to remind them of a nightmare year: 2011, when Britain voted decisively to reject electoral reform by moving from first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV). Around the time of the 2010 general election, polls had shown that Britain was in favour of the change by a 27-point margin. But on 5 May 2011, more than two-thirds of voters said No to AV, which ended up more than 35 points ahead.

What undid the Alternative Vote was a ruthlessly effective campaign against it – one that was almost completely fact-free. No2AV focused relentlessly on the cost of a new voting system; poster after poster made reference to its illusory price tag of £250m. “He needs bulletproof vests,” intoned one illustrated with a picture of a soldier, “NOT an alternative voting system.” Another came with a picture of a baby: “She needs a new cardiac facility, NOT an alternative voting system.”

As one veteran of the pro-AV campaign recalled recently: “It was impossible to fight. How do you repudiate it without repeating it? We never found a way.”

That appeal to economic interests was so powerful that Vote Leave has come up with a similarly memorable figure: the £350m weekly cost of Britain’s EU membership. This has been debunked by fact-checkers such as Full Fact, which estimates that the UK pays roughly £9.8bn a year once money back is taken into account. Regardless, Vote Leave keeps quoting the figure – and no wonder, because the chief executive of Vote Leave is also the architect of No2AV’s crushing victory: a 38-year-old LSE graduate called Matthew Elliott.

Despite Vote Leave’s anti-politics flavour, Elliott is a Westminster insider and well connected in the wonk world. He is the founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the most high-profile of a close network of think tanks that are a proving ground for a rising generation of right-wingers. The Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute together form what one alumnus jokingly calls a “Sorbonne for neoliberals”.

Much of Vote Leave’s staff is drawn from another Elliott creation: Business for Britain. The group was set up ostensibly to lobby for David Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU but was in reality designed as a Leave campaign in utero. Accordingly, many of its early recruits have ended up moving across.

Elliott is regarded as having a keen eye for talent and for being generous with his time. At each organisation where he has worked, he has taken care to bring on promising protégés. Alumni of the Elliott school include Susie Squire, who spent two years at the heart of Cameron’s administration as press secretary; Nick Pickles, head of UK public policy at Twitter; and Dylan Sharpe, the combative head of public relations at the Sun. Most of his favourite employees have three things in common: libertarian politics, a cut-throat instinct and loyalty to him personally. Those who have worked for Elliott largely speak highly of him.

The same cannot be said for the second leading player in Vote Leave who has the Remain side worried: Gove’s former henchman Dominic Cummings. David Laws – who, as a junior minister, worked closely with Cummings when he was at Gove’s Department for Education – describes him as a “grade-A political Rottweiler”. “As well as being bright,” Laws writes in his memoirs, “Dom Cummings was also blunt, rude, impatient and tactless.” According to friends of both, without Cummings’s encouragement, Gove would have been a mostly silent presence in the Leave campaign because of his close friendship with Cameron.

The former special adviser’s commitment to anti-Europeanism is a long-held one – his first job in politics was at Britain for Sterling, which lobbied against Britain joining the European single currency in the 1990s. Thereafter, he worked for Iain Duncan Smith during his brief and unhappy leadership. A former staffer from that time remembers him as an “abrasive presence”.

After Duncan Smith’s removal as Tory leader, Cummings retreated to his native Durham, where he helped to engineer victory for the No side in the referendum on whether to give the north-east its own devolved assembly. It was the tactics used in that referendum – an endless focus on costs, coupled with personal attacks on the credentials of the Yes side – which were taken on and extended by Elliott during the AV contest. Those tactics are once again on display in this referendum.

That partly explains why, on the Remain side, Cummings is respected and feared in equal measure. Yet his confrontational approach often proves his undoing: for instance, he understood the importance of giving a cross-party sheen to Vote Leave (not least to secure the official campaign designation), yet his conduct led to the departure of the Eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey. “We live in a world where people get things by being nice to each other,” reflects a former colleague of Cummings, “and Dom doesn’t really work like that.”

Hoey’s walkout set the ball rolling on another, less dramatic exit: John Mills, Labour’s largest private individual donor and a Brexiter of many years’ standing. He feared the Vote Leave brand had become irrevocably Conservative. (Unlike Hoey, Mills remains on speaking terms with Vote Leave.)

Friends say that, for Elliott, who has been “planning this [campaign] for some time”, Cummings’s disposition is a price worth paying for his tactical nous. It was Cummings who was the architect of Vote Leave’s two-pronged strategy: claiming that the money we now pay to the EU could go towards the NHS, and suggesting that Brexit will allow us to cut immigration by “regaining control of our borders”.

The perceived cut-through of the latter message with older Labour voters was behind Vote Leave’s big tactical gamble. On 8 May, an official statement by the campaign declared that leaving the EU would also entail leaving the single market.

That decision is unlikely to find favour with big businesses that rely on international trade but it does allow Vote Leave to make strong and unambiguous claims about cutting immigration. If we are outside the European Union but inside the single market (as Norway is), we would have to accept free movement of labour. If we leave the single market, however, we could introduce a points-based entry system, or even finally achieve Cameron’s otherwise impossible cap on net migration.

Upset business but win over small-C conservative voters: it’s a big risk for the Brexiters to take. It represents a throw of the dice by Cummings, who sidelined Nigel Farage precisely in order to minimise the campaign’s focus on immigration. But with the vote scheduled to take place on 23 June and a repeat of last year’s refugee crisis in the Mediterranean looming, security and borders are likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds. For all that those on the Brexit side have denounced Cameron for running a repeat of “Project Fear”, they know that they have to make change less terrifying than maintaining the status quo.

***

In their quest to take Britain out of the EU, the Brexiters have a simple, if high-stakes, strategy. They want to appear to be the underdogs (hence their repeated complaints about the government’s £9m pro-EU leaflet) and as a scrappier, grass-roots campaign taking on the might of the establishment. Naturally, this image doesn’t reflect an unvarnished truth: the press has been largely onside and senior editors and columnists are very willing to take Vote Leave’s calls.

There is also no concern about keeping the lights on. Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who bankrolled Ukip at the 2015 general election, might have refused to fund Vote Leave after it triumphed over his favoured vehicle, Leave.EU – he has called Matthew Elliott “Lord Elliott of Loserville” and threatened to sue the Electoral Commission for naming Vote Leave the official voice of Brexit – but insiders say that the campaign’s financial position is nothing to worry about.

If Vote Leave wins, it will have scored an extraordinary victory – and, it should be noted, defied the hopes of most of our allies in the rest of the world. The politicians backing Britain’s continued membership of the EU include not just Barack Obama but his likely successor, Hillary Clinton, as well as the prime ministers of Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

There is a vanishingly small number of international politicians who back Brexit. Like the inner core of Vote Leave, they are overwhelmingly drawn from the right-wing fringe – US Republicans such as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and the French National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, who, unhappily for the Brexiters, is expected to visit Britain to support their case.

The only foreign leader who seriously supports a British Leave vote in June is a man praised by Nigel Farage and whose country Dominic Cummings spent several years working in: Vladimir Putin, who, as far as British voters are concerned, is even more toxic than Farage, Galloway or Gove.

When Britain’s odd squad looks abroad for allies, its options are few – but this ragtag collective is far from beaten. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad