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In this game of political tennis, Cameron can’t stop double-faulting

It has taken a while for the Tories to recognise that they even have an adversary.

When the story of this parliament is retold in the inevitable TV dramatisation, tennis will surely be a leitmotif. David Cameron will be shown at home in the country in the summer of 2012, brooding over the decline in his reputation, returning tennis balls spat at him by the machine he has christened “the Clegger”. The name honours a close-fought match between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders early in the summer of 2010, during their political honeymoon as coalition partners. Screenwriters will enjoy recreating flirtatious cross-party dialogue over the net. Cameron won; they haven’t played since.

The camera cuts to a council-run court in Waterlow Park in Highgate, north London, in October 2011. Ed Miliband, in baggy, grey, Bermuda-length shorts and untucked T-shirt, is taking tennis lessons. According to one witness of these coaching sessions, the Labour leader lacks technique but compensates with humour and determination to raise his game.

The metaphor is irresistible. Those are, after all, the traits in Miliband – geniality and a cap­acity to improve in ungainly increments – that have stabilised his leadership of the Labour Party after its shaky start. Few pretend that he took naturally to the role but he has won respect by refusing to act out the part of the hapless loser as cast for him by the coalition parties and most of the media.

The enemy within

The Tories are perplexed. Most were convinced that Miliband’s leadership was a re-enactment of their experience under Iain Duncan Smith – a decent fellow, promoted beyond his powers. Conservative MPs watched with surprise and relief as Labour ignored the script and failed to mount a coup. Some were scornful of the opposition’s apparent lack of gumption. It has taken a while for the Tories to recognise that they even have an adversary.

Still, the belief across Westminster is that Miliband’s rehabilitation owes more to government error: he hasn’t needed to serve aces when Cameron keeps double-faulting.

The bungled Budget was a turning point. Indiscriminate tax raids coupled with a bung for high earners left the government looking mean and inept just as the economy dipped back into recession. But what has stoked Tory anxiety is Downing Street’s failure to regain the initiative in the ensuing months. A trail of U-turns, with policy initiatives jettisoned like litter hurled from a moving car, has exacerbated doubts as to whether the leadership has a coherent story to tell about what it is doing and why. “We just seem to be spraying announcements all over the place,” says one despondent Cameroon MP.

George Osborne’s reputation as a political mastermind has been shredded. He is defended by a phalanx of protégé MPs from the 2010
intake but older hands complain about his dual role as Chancellor and party election strategist, muttering that neither can be done well on a part-time basis.

A related gripe is that the No 10 machine is understaffed with party operators. Tory ideologues lament the departure of Steve Hilton, Cameron’s intellectually hyperactive and emotionally combustible strategist, who is on an extended sabbatical at Stanford University in California. More temperate Conservatives miss James O’Shaugnessy, Cameron’s mild-mannered, cerebral head of policy who quit Downing Street last year to advise the lobbying firm Portland. His departure hastened what many Tories see as the pernicious infiltration of the Cameron project by civil servants. The Prime Minister is suspected of having been suborned by Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood. The operation is said to be ineffective and rife with little resentments. “Downing Street is so factionalised there are factions that consist of only one person,” says a senior government figure.

By comparison, the Deputy Prime Minister’s office at 70 Whitehall has emerged as an effective power base for Nick Clegg. Even some
Tories grudgingly concede that the Lib Dem leader has the more functional team. An on­going source of irritation for Conservatives is that advisers who report to Clegg sit in N0 10, while Cameron has no equivalent agents at the heart of the Lib Dem wing at Whitehall. The imbalance feeds the Tories’ suspicion that their coalition partners feign unity, then sneak around corners to plot subterfuge.

Clegg’s influence over policy is resented all the more because it seems so disproportionate to his party’s popularity ratings. Every opinion poll putting the Lib Dems in single-digit parity with the UK Independence Party reinforces the backbench Tory conviction that their coalition partners are weaklings and saboteurs who keep kicking the Prime Minister’s shins in a desperate bid to be noticed. Cameron’s compromises are therefore despised as capitulations. It is a dynamic that breeds a virulent strain of rebellion in a small but noisy minority of MPs. “Their anger with Nick is really a proxy for anger with Cameron,” warns one Lib Dem minister. “They are fuelled by the certainty that, far from being disloyal in making trouble for the Prime Minister, they are being loyal to the ideal of Conservatism.”

Shock absorber

The Lib Dems have a motive in provoking the Tory purists. Clegg’s survival at the next election relies on finding voters who still blame Labour for the economic crisis but mistrust the Tories as a party for the intolerant rich. The hope is that they might want to keep the third party in government as a kind of ideological shock absorber.

That strategy sounded more plausible before the coalition’s economic policy stalled. The original idea was to share kudos with Osborne for having fixed the nation’s finances in time for an election in 2015. That could quickly become a rush to exchange blame for making things worse.
Labour is praying for just such a collapse in its opponents’ discipline. There are lingering doubts about Miliband’s chances, despite the practice and coaching, of winning a one-on-one contest with a match-fit Cameron. But the odds change if somewhere between a disorderly administration, a rebellious party and a mischievous coalition partner, the Prime Minister’s racket gets broken before he reaches the centre court.

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

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The royal makeover

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.