The Tories think they’re winning – but it’s the coalition that is beating Labour

With a Conservative majority almost certainly out of reach, Cameron must redefine as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

The terrace of the House of Commons, overlooking the Thames, is full of basking Tories these days. As parliament goes into its summer recess, the mood in the Conservative Party has, like the weather, turned sunny with a fierce edge.

David Cameron’s troops feel they are winning battles. On a range of potent issues – the economy, immigration, welfare – the Conservatives comfortably control the debate. They boast that they will cut here and clamp down there, while defying Labour to prove its willingness to do the same. Doubting that those are even the right remedies has become a sideline lament. Labour’s lead in opinion polls looks flimsy.

A measure of the Tories’ confidence is the venom in their attacks on Labour’s record of running the National Health Service. Conservative MPs have used the publication of a review of hospital mortality rates to hurl charges of lethal neglect at Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, who ran the department under Gordon Brown.

Downing Street knows that the public is suspicious of Tory motives towards the NHS. In campaign terms, the best that No 10 can hope for is making it that little bit harder for Labour to occupy the moral high ground. So the attacks on Burnham are a tactic to trash the opposition’s credentials as champions of a cherished national institution. Cameron was once reluctant to be drawn into partisan warfare over the NHS. That squeamishness has gone. The plan now is simpler and applicable in every area, regardless of policy. As one Tory close to No 10 puts it: “We beat Labour to a pulp.”

This bloodlust reflects the influence of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign strategist who was hired for his mastery of bare-knuckle politics. It is working. Conservative MPs are given regular pep talks by Crosby, in which they are shown encouraging polling numbers and drilled in attack lines. They can see that Labour is under pressure and are happier and more loyal to their leader as a result. It is unclear whether this level of aggression can be sustained over two years without alienating the public. Some Tory moderates worry that Cameron needs to look like a reasonable man governing for the whole nation, not the alpha dog of a snarling pack. Crosby has made the Tories good at hammering but not everything in politics is a nail.

At least bashing Labour is something that every Conservative can agree on. Developing new policies risks reviving the culture war between the party’s “modernisers” and “traditionalists”. Besides, nothing can be enacted this side of a general election without seeking permission from the Lib Dems and granting concessions if they object. Few things animate the rebellious urges of Tories like a reminder of their subordination to Nick Clegg.

Loathing of coalition is deepening on the Conservative benches as more MPs of a certain age feel their chances of ministerial office slipping away for ever. Yet inside government, the power-sharing arrangement feels more stable than it has done in a long time. Insiders from both parties describe the completion of negotiations for last month’s Spending Review as a revelation. Lib Dems and Tories managed to coalesce around a shared set of tricky economic proposals, while fighting partisan policy battles – over deregulation of nursery places, over participation in European Union criminal justice co-operation, over internet surveillance. That choreography, Lib Dem ministers say, should kill off any doubts that the coalition will go the distance. Meanwhile, Cameron and George Osborne are determined to keep open the option of renewing the arrangement for a second term. Senior figures in the government say that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have stared at the electoral arithmetic and realised that, even in best-case scenarios, their reliance on the Lib Dems may endure beyond 2015. To win a majority, Cameron needs to hold on to every voter he had in 2010 – a rare feat for an incumbent – and then win over a bunch of Lib Dem and Labour swing voters and also see off a challenge from Ukip. It is not impossible but it would need the opposition to panic and crumble.

Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record. That will revive the two-against-one dynamic that made it so hard for Labour to get its economic arguments across after the last election – a handicap from which Ed Miliband has yet to recover fully. If the next parliament is hung and Labour is not the biggest party, it will feel like an endorsement of the status quo and so a victory for the combined coalition forces. At that point, backbench Tory hatred of Clegg will become a big problem for Cameron. The pressure to go it alone would be immense. A former Tory cabinet minister tells me: “We are in danger of getting to where we are now in terms of seats, having persuaded people that it’s working, and then not being able to recreate the government that delivered it.”

The last election was kinder to Cameron than it was to his party. He got to be Prime Minister; they had to share power with the Lib Dems – an unforgivable affront. Given Tory misgivings about Cameron, he has done well in recent weeks to instil confidence in his MPs that Labour can be beaten. For his next trick, he needs to persuade them that they can win. That will be tricky, as it will surely require redefining as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

"Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record." 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 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories