David Cameron makes a fetish of toughness, because he has no other virtues to sell to voters

Even the sceptics accept that Miliband’s stance requires integrity and strength of will.

The quality that David Cameron and George Osborne want voters to admire most in a politician is the ability to make hard choices. In his Budget on 20 March the Chancellor repeatedly boasted of how “tough” he was being on public-sector pay, on welfare spending, on the deficit and on what Tories suppose are the causes of the deficit.

The same swagger was on show in the Prime Minister’s big post-Budget announcement – a policy of limiting immigrants’ access to benefits and social housing, reported inevitably as a “crackdown”. It isn’t yet clear whether Cameron is most offended by the target families’ foreignness, their poverty or their want of somewhere to live.

Tackling immigration and welfare with menaces is the old clenched-fist model of Tory toughness that Cameron once said was not his style. That he now strikes the pose suggests submission to the advice of Lynton Crosby, Downing Street’s pugnacious Australian election strategist. (Some foreign nationals are more welcome than others.) No 10 calculates that Cameron’s muscular affectations better suit public expectations of a national leader than Ed Miliband’s intellectual refinement. So over the next two years the Tories will attack the Labour leader for lacking the gumption to govern in austere times. The pillory is built on opinion polls taken in marginal seats, where voters’ biggest complaints about the last government are that it opened the borders and squandered money on benefits.

Those are also the topics where the gulf is widest between what the public thinks and what Labour members wish the public would think. Miliband knows the gap must be narrowed but he approaches the task with caution. Westminster opinion seems evenly divided between those who think that is a mark of strategic cunning – choosing not to distract attention from coalition strife by provoking rebellion on his own side – and those who see it as ruinous timidity.

A warning of how difficult Miliband’s task will be came in a recent welfare vote. A bill is being rushed through parliament to address a legal ruling striking down the government’s authority to impose sanctions on benefit claimants judged not to be seeking work. Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, agreed not to oppose the measure, in exchange for minor concessions. Labour formally abstained, to the fury of party activists, trade unions and some MPs, 43 of whom defied the whip.

The dispute expresses tension between different views of what opposition is about – dogged protest against the government or rehearsal to be a plausible replacement? The rebels are appalled that their party is acquiescing in what they see as vindictiveness towards the unemployed. The awkward reality is that, if elected, Labour’s welfare policy would include sanctions, just as it did before 2010. Without that component there is no chance of winning consent for more generous social interventions and Miliband knows it. So he approved Byrne’s decision and lobbied MPs privately to support the abstention. “Compared to things we’d have to do in government, this was not a difficult decision,” notes one senior Labour source. Yet the ferocious backlash represents just a fraction of the trouble brewing for the future.

In areas that aren’t too fissile for his party, Miliband has a mini-portfolio of tough calls made. He broke with Westminster convention by attacking Rupert Murdoch over phone-hacking. He refused to match Cameron’s pledge of a European referendum when most of the press declared that path suicidal. He generally refuses to sit the tests that Conservatives and hostile media set as measures of his credibility – backing specific cuts, for example, or signing up to spending caps. Some senior Labour figures see that reluctance as naive but even the sceptics accept that Miliband’s stance requires integrity and strength of will, as do an increasing number of Tories.

The same cannot be said of the Prime Minister. Downing Street strategists have nominated toughness as their ultimate virtue mainly because Cameron’s record rules out so many other qualities. He isn’t a bringer of prosperity. He can’t fly a flag for compassion, consistency or competence. Much of what he has done has come about by accident. He was bounced into the Leveson inquiry against his will. The promise of an EU referendum that his friends pretend is the apogee of boldness was dragged out of him by rebellious MPs.

Even with deficit reduction, the hardest choices are made by other ministers and local authorities. Cameron and Osborne insist that cuts must happen but stay insulated from the consequences. Their vaunted fiscal bravery is all delegation.

Cameron’s one authentic act of political courage was legislating for gay marriage, despite fierce grass-roots opposition. He didn’t get much credit for it because people on both sides of the argument presumed he was engaged in cynical brand management.

That perception will always undermine the Prime Minister’s claim to be a great decision-maker. He is right that Labour is vulnerable as long as Miliband defers tricky policy choices, but he is deluded if he thinks he stands for Solomonic judgement. What Cameron calls leading the country on the tough road to recovery looks suspiciously like becoming the path of least resistance in the Tory party. When he thinks he is showing steel, the rest of us see plastic.


David Cameron. Photograph: Getty Images

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

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.