Cameron is right: the common ground is not the centre ground

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing.

There’s been no shortage of opinion on how David Cameron should lead and direct the Conservative Party over the last few days. And even less scarce are the various calls for turning and lurching that would resemble a new disco dance routine were he to take heed. However Cameron's public response has been to stay firmly on message. Amongst all these cliches, I can’t help wondering if I am alone in thinking: 'I agree with Dave?'

In his Sunday Telegraph article, Cameron maintained that what he cares about are the needs of the "ordinary people". He also rightly acknowledged that the common ground is not the same as the lowest common denominator. This may point to both a savviness about the current public mood and a deeper astuteness of leadership that rises above the demands from his party grassroots.

Before I go on, I just want to make it clear, I’m not a natural Cameroon by any means. My impression of Cameron during the 2010 election was accurately represented by the election advert spoofs of him intensely gazing outwards from the sky blue backdrop with the caption "Vote Conservative. Or I will kill this kitten." In other words, I found the - similarly intense - promise of a new brand of progressive Conservatism slightly nauseating, if not altogether spurious.

However, as with any reality TV gameshow, which politics unfortunately often resembles, the true test of determination is one which withstands time in the hot seat – something David Cameron must know much about. And actually, political manoeuvring is, by definition, anything other than staying on course.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial with the standfirst, "A new path to prosperity is the only means by which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor can return the Tories to favour". That is just the type of shortsighted viewpoint which leads to complacency in the better times and crisis in the worse. A healthier economy might dampen the volume, but it won’t erase memories of expenses scandals, various cases of "inappropriate" conduct, or one-off events such as "plebgate" and "pastygate".

But what do the public want? Well for starters, 'the public' are disillusioned with politics and distrusting of politicians. According to Lord Ashcroft, three quarters of those who supported UKIP in Eastleigh said their vote was a protest vote out of discontent with the main parties. They (and why do political commentators always refer to the public as a separate body? More like we) have ideals of fairness that correlate with perceptions of recognition, responsibility, but also responsiveness – of a system that will be on our side no matter which side we are on, and that will safeguard our opportunities in times of plenty and in times of misfortune. It might all sound a bit Rawlsian but actually this as simple as it gets for the 'ordinary' voter (or eligible-but-can’t-be-bothered-non-voter) who only engages with politics once every four years.

So the common ground isn’t the middle ground, although the terms are often used interchangeably, something I have been guilty of in the past. It is not about the "bell curve of voters in the middle" as Bernard Jenkins put it. Indeed, it is about disrupting the status quo of adversarial politics for one which requires deeper thought and questioning of mainstream assumptions. It is recognising that my ordinary isn’t your ordinary, but respecting that there are ways of making policy which can recognise and respect both. And actually, this doesn’t have to be confrontational. It could be consensual. I’m not saying that we have absolutely no need for the more conventional political jostling at appropriate points in the legislative and scrutiny process. But the current culture of politics prioritises this over all other types of dialogue. Politicians do not always need to be carved from the same mould just because the media thrive best on stories about rebels and ridicule.

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing – on this also I agree with Dave. If Ed Miliband stole the Conservatives’ clothes when quoting Disraeli’s "one nation" back in the autumn, perhaps Cameron deliberately took a swipe back by referencing the common ground. Whilst he linked the phrase to Keith Joseph (probably as an olive branch to the dedicated readers of the Torygraph) it is also resonant of the "common good" attributed to Michael Sandel, one of the more recently proclaimed gurus of the Labour Party. This narrative promotes a moral argument for a political and economic vision which transcends party politics and draws instead on values, shared responsibility and civic engagement. A coincidence or something more from the man whose mind is set on opening the doors of a party once seen as restricted to the fox hunting, land-owning elite?

It is types not unlike these calling for the shotguns now. So, will Cameron really be fending off a leadership challenge in the next few months? I think not. Realistically no one other than him could respectably lead the Conservatives through the 2015 election. Abandoning his carefully crafted principles around international aid or the NHS would make him a laughing stock, rather than a conviction politician. And I also don’t begrudge him having a long-term vision. But perhaps this long term vision isn’t just about jobs, education and house building. Perhaps it is in recognition of the fact that politics itself might be changing.

Caroline Macfarland is managing director of ResPublica

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Macfarland is manging director of ResPublica

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide