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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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage