George Osborne leaves No. 10 Downing Street on 7 October 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The next generation of Tory modernisers looks to Osborne, not Cameron, for inspiration

The balance of credit for getting the Tories even this far has clearly tilted towards the Chancellor.

David Cameron and George Osborne follow what might be called the Samuel Beckett school of politics. “Try again. Fail again,” the great Irish poet and playwright advised when success proved elusive. “Fail better.”

Everything the Conservative Party’s leading duo claim to have achieved is salvaged from the wreckage of things they once said they wanted to do. In opposition, Cameron did not fulfil his ambition to “modernise” his party, or even persuade it that his kind of modernisation should be the aim. He has called his Conservatism variously “compassionate”, “green”, “liberal”, “post-bureaucratic” and “progressive”. The Tories do not now loom in the public imagination as any of those things.

Osborne’s record is hardly better. He wanted to whip the public finances into shape in time for a 2015 election. Instead, the Budget squeeze will extend deep into the next parliament. The economy has grown less and government has borrowed more than he planned. As for political strategy, by cutting the top rate of income tax, the Chancellor has done more than any Labour politician to cast the Tories as servants of the rich.

Now that growth has returned, Conservatives claim that Osborne is vindicated but his real achievement is to be blamed so little for getting so much wrong. Economists will keep debating whether the pace of spending cuts explains the dismal growth since 2010. In political terms, it hardly matters when enough voters think the pain was made unavoidable by Labour maxing out the nation’s credit card.

The opposition’s strategy now is to change the subject from Treasury accounts to household finances – and it seems to be working. Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy bills has propelled the high cost of living to the top of the agenda, which is problematic for the Tories because they don’t know how to get prices down.

That is not necessarily the seismic movement in economic debate that the opposition needs. Public suspicion that Labour is habitually spendthrift remains a weakness. Ed Balls knows as much and devotes more time to thinking of ways to signal Budget discipline than his critics seem to realise. Unless the fiscal credibility leak is plugged, the cost-of-living campaign risks becoming a complaint about the shape of a recovery made by the Tories. Labour will be derided as arsonists, moaning about the way the fire brigade deals with the inferno they started.

Downing Street will also portray Miliband’s attacks as defeatism – to be filed as false prophecy alongside warnings of triple-dip recessions and 1930s-style mass unemployment. “We need to be wary of declaring false dawns,” says one Tory cabinet minister. “But they should be worried about declaring false dusks.”

Besides, Cameron’s instincts, supported by focus group reports, tell him that Britain has taken against the Labour leader and won’t make him prime minister even if he campaigns on resonant issues. The No 10 view, according to one Tory insider, is: “It really doesn’t matter what Ed Miliband says because he’s Ed Miliband.”

The response from Labour strategists is that voters warm to their candidate the more they see of him, while the opposite is true of the Prime Minister. Cameron’s confidence of his superiority as a performer blinds him to the way that overconfidence and a presumption of natural superiority are his most rebarbative traits. His ability to look steadfast and genial in front of a camera is useful as a contrast to Miliband but it doesn’t dilute the old toxin in the Tory brand. Cameron had his chance in opposition to persuade people that he was at the vanguard of a new breed of Conservative and not enough voters bought it to deliver him a majority in parliament.

The next generation of Tory “modernisers” doesn’t buy it either. Many of the young, liberal-minded MPs who entered parliament in 2010 as “Cameroons” have given up expecting inspiration from Cameron. They admire Michael Gove as a crusader against state control in public services but their true leader is Osborne. It is often noted in Westminster that the Chancellor has cultivated a coterie of MPs and ensured their elevation up the ministerial ranks – Matt Hancock, Nadhim Zahawi and Liz Truss, among others – as if their loyalty is based only on patronage.

Belief plays a stronger part than is often recognised. Osborne is seen as a more rigorous thinker than Cameron and more interested in matching the party to the complexion and mores of 21st-century Britain. The Chancellor’s distaste for the policy of celebrating marriage with selective tax breaks is revealing in that respect. He goes along with it out of loyalty to Cameron but he grasps that it is money wasted on a moralising message that only traditional Tories understand. Conservatives who fret about the party’s failure to appeal in the north and among ethnic minority communities look to Osborne, not Cameron, to think of solutions – or at least to engage with the problem.

Ambitious young Tories note how Osborne retains fiercely clever advisers at the Treasury while many of the brightest No 10 aides – James O’Shaughnessy, Steve Hilton, Rohan Silva – have quit since 2010. The suspicion is that the Chancellor likes being challenged while the Prime Minister is more comfortable surrounded by amiable mediocrity.

The two men’s political fortunes are still intertwined. The bulk of their party is united behind them in recognition that, even if their route to victory is uncertain, it is the only one they have. Yet the balance of credit for getting the Tories even this far has clearly tilted towards Osborne. Cameron is valued chiefly as the right salesman for a party that will be lucky to do any better in the next election than it did in the last one. Even Conservative optimists have pinned their hopes on the prospect of failing again, failing better.

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

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue