British voters do not judge prime ministers according to their popularity abroad, which is lucky for David Cameron, who is pretty friendless right now. Downing Street aides talk up the Tory leader’s rapport with Barack Obama and the Tory high command was conspicuously pleased with the result of the US presidential poll. It showed how a frayed incumbent can win a second term with promises to finish an economic repair job, which is a précis of the Tories’ 2015 campaign.
But Obama’s economic policy, based on stimulus spending, is the opposite of Cameron’s. Banter over barbecues and basketball indicates social ease, not ideological congruity. The US view of the UK hardly changes from one president to the next – British prime ministers are useful but non-essential.
Cameron’s natural best friend on the world stage ought to be Angela Merkel, a moderate conservative who also makes a fetish of budgetary discipline. But Tory Euroscepticism has sabotaged any prospect of an alliance between London and Berlin. The German chancellor has been forced to choose between practical negotiation with leaders who believe in the EU project and petulant demands from one who doesn’t. She has opted for the former.
Cameron’s preferred foreign policy vehicle is the intercontinental trade show. The Prime Minister leads a caravan of ministers and business chiefs to a region of burgeoning economic activity to advertise the UK as a venue for investment and an exporter of fine wares. The most recent such foray was a relatively low-key excursion to sell British weapons in the Gulf. On past, higher-profile trips, Cameron has taken vast commercial entourages to China, India and Brazil – the checklist of nascent economic superpowers.
No one doubts the utility of these trips, although Foreign Office veterans, lamenting the neglect of European relationships, regard them as a bit spivvy. Yet their significance is widely underrated. The grand tour of non-EU trading partners is part of an explicit strategy to present Britain as a stand-alone hub for international commerce. Old Europe, suffocating in bureaucracy, is envisaged falling behind the dynamic Asian and Latin American powers.
This world-view has become central to the Cameron project. It is a mainstay of the Prime Minister’s rhetoric now that the inchoate “modernisation” project that defined the first years of his leadership has been abandoned. The vital motif, repeated at every public outing, is the “global race”, in which Britain must make itself competitive. Naturally, that requires conventional Tory remedies: lower corporate taxes, fewer labour protections, benefit cuts to prevent indolence.
Some emblems of the earlier attempt to rebrand the party survive – the commitment to overseas aid, for example, and support for gay marriage. Compassion is still officially a watchword for the Prime Minister’s blend of Conservatism, but his tone, with its implied threat of subjugation by foreign rivals, is tougher.
Most Conservative MPs like the shift, not least because of its irrevocably Eurosceptic implications, but few fans of the leader’s steelier new style give him exclusive credit for it. The plan to project British power through non-EU trade was first outlined by William Hague when he became Foreign Secretary in 2010. The sudden fashioning of that vision into a new Cameroon doctrine is widely attributed to the hand of Michael Gove.
One Conservative minister describes Cameron’s post-conference direction approvingly as “Gove modernisation, not husky modernisation” – a reference to the Arctic trip that Cameron famously took to project his green credentials and that has become a Westminster byword for facile image management.
Gove’s status as Cameron’s latest Richelieu has grown in proportion to the declining fortunes of George Osborne, whose reputation as a strategist never recovered from the bungled Budget in March. He is also a less divisive figure than the Chancellor, with a rare capacity to sustain friendships reaching from the right of his own party to the more Tory-friendly wing of the Liberal Democrats. Osborne is always presumed to be plotting the destruction of his coalition partners; the Education Secretary is seen by top Lib Dems as someone with whom business can always be done – even, it is whispered, in a renewed coalition after the next election if circumstances demand it. Gove has a knack for appearing intellectually attuned to whomever it is he deals with. It is a trait that one wary colleague describes as “ideological elasticity”. A Downing Street insider is blunter: “There are two Michael Goves – the soft liberal one and the mad neocon one.”
Above all, Gove is cherished in No 10 as the architect of the coalition’s most successful policy manoeuvre – poaching academy schools from Labour and rolling them out as a countrywide revolution. The ground is being prepared for education reform to be sold as the government’s totemic achievement in an election campaign. Thus Gove has placed himself at the centre of the “global race” story. It is his schools and “rigorous” new curriculum that are supposed to equip our children with the skills they will need to compete with diligent Indian and Chinese graduates.
The emergence of Goveism as the Tories’ guiding creed is being monitored carefully at the top of the Labour Party. In a recent speech, the Education Secretary attacked Ed Miliband’s newly minted “One Nation” philosophy, essentially denouncing it as a mask concealing old socialist nostalgia and Luddite fear of change. His comments were subjected to more textual analysis in the opposition leader’s office than is normally accorded to potboiler ministerial interventions.
Miliband knows that Gove has been licensed by No 10 to lead the intellectual rebuttal of his ideas. It is a sign that Downing Street is at last starting to take seriously Miliband’s assertions that the challenges facing Britain are on a scale bigger than anything yet confronted by the current generation of politicians, and developing a rival analysis.
Tory MPs, meanwhile, have been wondering if Cameron has anything that might feasibly be identified as a governing philosophy ever since he became their leader. Their answer now is that he doesn’t, but at least he has a friend at his cabinet table who does.