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
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.