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

Photo: Getty
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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.