The Tory leadership will easily weather this mini-crisis

But the scale of discontent with the Cameron-Osborne strategy hints at a brutal endgame in the futur

David Cameron and George Osborne have not had a great couple of weeks. The Budget triggered a torrent of bad headlines – the peculiar double tax bombshell on grannies and pasties blasted a hole in the Tory leadership’s reputation for strategic judgment. Mishandling of the public alert over possible petrol shortages in the event of a strike, triggering needless panic, seemed to showcase managerial amateurism. Now plans to allow security services to eavesdrop on public emails and social media communications have brought the Conservatives’ libertarian tendency out in a frenzy. Backbench grumbling, on and off the record, has turned to aggressive sniping. The Tories have a reputation for keeping their ceremonial leader-slicing daggers close by at all times, so how dangerous is this insurrectionary mood for Cameron? Not very. At least, not for now.

There is, it must be said, a deep reservoir of resentment against the Conservative leader. It dates back to his failure on winning the job to show affection for or even interest in his own MPs. The team of “modernisers” who felt the need to transform the party in order to get it elected gave parliamentary veterans the impression that their old battle scars were an embarrassment and their campaign medals worthless. That did not go down well. But dissent was muted because the appetite for victory was so strong and Cameron looked like a plausible victor. By failing to win a majority, the Tory leader effectively reneged on an implicit deal with his party’s grumpy tendency. They do not feel bound to stay loyal.

But the 2010 election also brought in a large cohort of new Tory MPs who, regardless of whether or not they are ideologically Cameroon (if that isn’t an oxymoron), are less emotionally bound up in the old Wilderness Wars. Besides, there is plainly no one in the cabinet even close to rivalling the incumbent Prime Minister in terms of projecting the general air of a leader. Even Cameron’s enemies accept that the thing he does best is look the part. The backbench moaners do not have an alternative candidate in mind, they just want the existing leader to be something he isn’t: less aloof, more engaged in a red-blooded, supply-side-reforming, tax-cutting, red-tape slashing push for growth.  

Often this irritation comes across as a complaint about class – Cameron the toff failing to understand the needs and preoccupations of the aspiring strivers; lions complaining about donkey leadership. As the Economist’s Bagehot columnist expertly dissected it last week c , class is indeed an element but it is mostly a proxy for other concerns. If Cameron had a way of kick-starting the economy and showing people that he sincerely grasps how tough their lives are, no one would care who his parents are or where he went to school.

Some of the chatter against Cameron and Osborne has centred on the Downing Street media operation. It is routinely observed that the departure of Andy Coulson as director of communications robbed the leadership of a close ally with an instinctive grasp of tabloid sensibilities. (That gripe conveniently ignores the fact that Coulson, as editor of the News of the World in its frenetic phone-hacking days, represented a political liability of epic proportions to the government.) There are complaints that Craig Oliver, Coulson’s replacement, is primarily interested in securing favourable-looking TV pictures of the PM and insufficiently sensitive to the peculiar, mischievous dynamics in the Lobby – the Westminster newspaper hack pack – that is often a primary motor driving the news agenda.

Even if there is some substance to these charges, the presentation issue is marginal to the more substantial questions of political judgement and managerial competence that plainly lie at the heart of the current mini-crisis. One important outcome has been the flushing out of discontent with George Osborne’s dual role as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Tory election strategist. Conservative MPs have started suggesting more openly that the twin pressures mean Osborne is doing neither job properly and should spend more time in the Treasury, less in Downing Street. There is also a feeling around in the party that Osborne is responsible for the “ultra-liberal” and “cosmopolitan” strains of reform that are now increasingly seen as a cul-de-sac for Tory modernisation. Even former Cameroons are starting to accept the argument, advanced relentlessly by ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, that a mistake was made in thinking Cool Britannia-style metropolitan Blairism would decontaminate the brand. Pursuing that approach led to a dangerous neglect of working class and lower middle class voters (the famous “squeezed middle”) who were vital in building Margaret Thatcher’s electoral coalition.

These are questions of strategic emphasis more than personnel. No-one is seriously suggesting anyone other than Osborne should be Chancellor just as no-one in the Tory party really expects anyone other than Cameron to be Prime Minister. One thing is clear, however, from the current spate of discontent. The current leadership is operating with a very narrow margin for error. There are not great reserves of goodwill. That means that, when the time eventually comes for Cameron to fall – and all Prime Ministers do eventually – the end will be sudden, unsentimental and brutal.

David Cameron walks out of Downing Street to pose for photographs with young athletes on March 28, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.