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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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.