Acting like an opposition while in government can only take you so far

In a more hostile media climate, the coalition's shifts would be portrayed as crass opportunism and

Tomorrow David Cameron will complete the beauty parade of party leaders offering their take on crony capitalism, following on from Ed Miliband's conference speech, which he amplified last week, and Nick Clegg's call for a "John Lewis economy". Expect Cameron to balance a fierce rhetorical attack on boardroom excess ("fill your boots capitalism") with plenty of warm words about the virtues of proper markets and a nod towards the sunny possibilities of "popular capitalism" -- a theme that all Tory leaders since Eden and Macmillan have returned to, along with a good few of their Labour counterparts.

The speech comes in advance of Vince Cable's forthcoming proposals on reigning in executive pay, timed to pre-empt the City bonus season, and it tops off a concerted three week campaign by the coalition to wrestle the theme of "responsible capitalism" out of Labour's hands. Turn the clock back four months, to when Miliband was being derided for his conference speech, and it is clear that this is not a theme that Conservative strategists will have been planning to major on. It has rudely intruded upon their preferred narratives of deficit reduction, broken Britain, and the Big Society.

Leave to one side for a moment your views on the policies (or lack of) to deal with so-called crony capitalism and consider what this episode tells us about the governing habits -- statecraft would be too grand a term -- of the coalition, in particular the Conservatives. A blitz of pamphlets, articles, speeches and briefings have made clear their determination to close down the rhetorical political space that Labour was seeking to occupy. As an orchestrated act of attempted political land-grabbing it has certainly been of the predatory variety. There is, of course, scope for plenty of cynicism about what this will achieve and whether the rhetorical arms-race that has gathered pace will actually lead to any real change. But it has left us in no doubt of the Conservatives' resolve not to be outflanked.

Which brings us to another revealing episode, seemingly unrelated, from last week: the Conservatives' misadventures on the reform of child benefit. At their party conference in 2010, George Osborne, in an attempt to secure his then message of"'we're all in this together", announced that any household with a higher-rate tax payer would see all of their child benefit payments axed. The result? A family with three kids relying on a single earner on £45k would lose around £2.5k; whereas a household on £80k (based on two earners each on £40k) wouldn't lose a penny.

Last week, some 15 months after this announcement and with the implementation date of next January starting to loom large, David Cameron opined that "some people" say that there is a "cliff edge issue". It's a bit unclear who he thinks the "other people" are. Indeed, their proposal creates a cliff-edge so high and steep that safety warnings should be put up for miles around. Nor is it the case that this was a technical problem that has been unearthed after months of forensic analysis by fine minds. Any official advice in DWP and HMT would have made ministers completely aware of all of the problems with the proposal -- the shortcomings are so obvious that any minster with a passing knowledge of the tax and benefit system wouldn't have needed these warnings. The lack of attention to detail, and willingness to sacrifice longer term policy coherence at the altar of short-term political positioning, is revealing.

Do these two recent episodes make a larger point? My sense is they do. Cameron and Osborne, when worried about an issue, still think and act like an opposition. They are swift, intensely political, and relentlessly focussed on their opponents. Whatever their underlying ideological convictions, they travel fairly lightly -- as oppositions tend to -- and, on issues other than their lodestar of deficit reduction, are willing to shift ground quickly to avoid being beached on the wrong side of public opinion. Crucially, however, they are susceptible to mistakes. Notably mistakes of the sort that you can get away with in opposition -- those that bite at some point in the future, at the point of actually having to deliver a policy.

Practicing this approach to politics when in power is both a strength and a weakness. The former because they can move quickly and in a united fashion to exploit a political opportunity or close down a threat, something that many parties quickly lose the capacity to do when in office. The latter because this style of governing, particularly when combined with a loose grip on policy detail, results in flaky decisions and vaulting U-turns (never mind creating turmoil for voters).

What does this mean for their political prospects? For now, not much. Given the intense media focus on Labour, and the generally benign mood towards the coalition, these episodes are smiled upon as evidence of agility and responsiveness. Yet in a more hostile media climate they would be portrayed as crass acts of opportunism and incompetence. And the question as to what the coalition, and the Conservatives in particular, are actually "for" other than deficit reduction would be asked far more pointedly.

Twenty months into office, it is time for the Conservatives to find a better balance between their opposition-like tendencies and the realities of governing. They need to achieve this before, as will happen sooner or later, the media environment turns.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496