Chillax, Dave. You're only prime minister

Cameron fiddles, while Hilton burns.

The Times today carries the latest instalments (£) in its serialisation of Francis Elliott and James Hanning's book Cameron: Practically a Conservative (to be published next week). One of the two extracts seems to corroborate what is becoming the settled view of the prime minister: that he is something less than a Stakhanovite. Elliott and Hanning report the verdict of an "ally" of David Cameron's:

If there was an Olympic gold medal for "chillaxing" he would win it. He is capable of switching off in a way that almost no other politician I know of can. The political mind is still working. He tends to get up early, look at the Sunday papers, check a few things online, the phone might ring and he’ll deal with that. But then he doesn’t go back to obsessively checking the computer or rewriting the speech, or worrying about what [Matthew] d’Ancona really means. It’s "I’ve absorbed the information, I have taken an action — I’ve asked Ed Llewellyn to do such and such, I will now go into the vegetable patch, watch a crap film on telly, play with the children, cook, have three or four glasses of wine with my lunch, have an afternoon nap, play tennis."

It's meant to be a flattering picture, of course, though it doesn't entirely eradicate the suspicion that Cameron will get away with doing just enough if he can. Now, workaholism isn't necessarily a quality to be admired in a politician - Gordon Brown, for instance, might have benefited from an ability to, as they say, "switch off" - but sometimes a premier needs to be "obsessive" (Brown was undoubtedly that; and it served him well during the worst days of the financial crisis in autmn 2008). Cameron's erstwhile policy "guru" Steve Hilton, who recently left Number 10 to begin a year-long "sabbatical" in California, certainly thought the PM was spreading his effortless superiority a little thin. Elliott and Hanning write (£):

As the Government approached its halfway mark Hilton remained the player in the team “who believes in things”, as one Tory puts it, and one who wanted to make bold, radical changes ... Hilton’s friends began openly wondering whether Cameron shared his passion. Having achieved his goal of being Prime Minister, he can appear suspiciously at ease managing the day-to-day demands of power. People still wondered if he had a sense of vision. What would his new Jerusalem look like? Peasmore, suggest some who accuse him of a lack of imagination. As Norman Tebbit puts it: “David was more concerned about being Prime Minister than what he was going to do as Prime Minister.”

Tebbitt's misgivings are shared by many in the parliamentary Conservative Party, especially those to Cameron's right, and by many right-wing commentators. Last week, for example, the editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, wrote a piece in the Telegraph that ran under the headline "Turn off your iPad, David Cameron, and start dealing with Britain's debt". The prime minister's insouciance, Nelson suggested, is driving his supporters to distraction. A good example is the fate of a proposal, made inside Number 10 a few weeks ago to cut corporation tax to 15 per cent.

This would have been a game-changer – a clear signal that Britain was open for business with the one of the lowest corporation taxes on the planet. The idea was for companies to come flocking back from Ireland, itself sending a signal, and the cost of the tax rise would be funded by welfare cuts (which remain popular). But the plan was rejected out of hand by the Treasury, and its advocates were given no help at all from Mr Cameron. To those who had believed they were working for a radical Prime Minister, it was a bitter blow. This sense of frustration is shared throughout the Conservative backbenches.

Cameron's not relaxing this weekend. He's in Washington DC for the G8. When he returns, he ought to be watching his back. His troops are restive.

David Cameron taking it easy (Photo: Getty Images)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses