Show Hide image

Cameron’s cavalier style has the Tory infantry feeling like lions led by a donkey

Labour cherishes serial Tory backbench disloyalty because it chips away at Cameron’s credentials as a man in command.

It is not most people’s idea of a race. The competitors are either standing still or shuffling backwards away from the finish line. Such is the state of play in David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s pursuit of a parliamentary majority at the next election.

The Labour leader, after a phase of incremental advance, is stationary again. Miliband’s MPs are getting used to his ponderous, halting rhythm but it doesn’t make them comfortable. None believes Labour’s lead in the opinion polls is what it could be against a divided Conservative Party presiding over economic failure.

The source of Labour’s greatest comfort has nothing to do with policy. It is the death of Conservative plans to redraw constituency boundaries, which means the opposition has a modest headstart in the accumulation of seats.

To overcome that obstacle, the Tories need a surge of public support well beyond their core vote – unusual but not impossible for an incumbent party.

For the electoral battle to come, Labour MPs are mathematically confident and intellectually anxious. They have an advantage but suspect it is unearned. For Conservatives it is the other way around. They know the numbers are against them but are sure that popular opinion on big questions – welfare, crime, immigration, Europe – sits firmly to the right of Miliband. What demoralises many Tory MPs is the sense that this advantage is being squandered by No 10.

That feeling is not restricted to Eurosceptic mutineers and Ukip fanciers. Even MPs who want to be loyal find themselves blaming Cameron for mishandling the restive element, either by failing to impose discipline or by confecting needless provocations. While Europe has captured the headlines as a source of Tory neuralgia, it is Cameron’s plan to legislate in favour of gay marriage that has fired the fury in local Conservative associations. It is the kind of issue that can turn an MP’s stroll through the constituency into a finger-wagging ordeal.

“In terms of the mailbag, complaints about gay marriage outnumber Europe by a factor of 80 to one,” says a Tory backbencher. Others confirm the ratio. Parliament will have a free vote on the matter, so the prospect of 120 Tories rejecting the bill does not count technically as a rebellion; but it is still a rebuke to Cameron’s agenda to “modernise” his party.

While some believe the leader’s championing of gay rights risks looking like a brandmanagement ploy, his friends insist that he is motivated only by dedication to the cause. Either way, Cameron has accidentally organised a parade of intemperate reaction that can only remind voters why the Tories needed modernising in the first place. Of the small numbers who choose a government for its commitment to gay equality, none will switch allegiance because of this specific gambit.

What riles Tory MPs above all is the all too-familiar picture of their leader playing the part of aristocrat officer, barking unrealistic orders at his battle-scarred troops without a care for conditions in the trenches. “It all comes across as a bit Melchett,” says one disappointed Cameroon MP, referring to Stephen Fry’s portrayal of a pompous, dimwit First World War general in the Blackadder series. The Tory infantry see themselves as lions led by a donkey.

Compounding questions about the Prime Minister’s judgement are doubts about the rigour of the Downing Street machine. The “grid” system developed by Tony Blair’s team to map out announcements and spot hazards on the horizon is said to have broken down. One former No 10 staffer reports that Cameron’s planning operation looks ahead no further than two months at a time, which, in terms of strategic perspective and problemsolving, is like crossing the road while contemplating your shoelaces.

Labour’s top brass are far from complacent but they have become noticeably less fearful. Those who once privately credited Cameron and George Osborne as shrewd operators are concluding that the Tory leadership might be a pair of amateurs after all. One senior shadow cabinet minister likes to joke that the Tories have reached levels of division and disarray in two years that Labour achieved only after a decade in office: “It took us years to be this bad at government.”

By contrast, inside Cameron’s team there are reserves of confidence based on two calculations. First, there is the continuing belief that even a frail economic recovery would justify a campaign claiming credit for progress and warning that Labour would turn the clock back. Second, Downing Street has undimmed faith that Miliband, irrespective of improvements in his media and parliamentary performances, will never match the public profile of a credible national leader.

Cameron’s relaxedness about the Labour threat only stokes the ire of Tory MPs, who think arrogance and complacency are his chief failings. A tiny but implacable platoon dreams of removing the leader and replacing him with someone of more muscular Conservative credentials, although there is no agreement on who that might be. That is a rather crucial omission for would-be plotters and it confirms the Downing Street view that the seditious whispers are symptoms of midterm panic among MPs who don’t know how to win an election and imagine that any fresh face at the top would somehow reset the dial in the Tories’ favour. (It wouldn’t.) “All those people wishing something magical would happen are deluding themselves,” says a senior party strategist.

Meanwhile, Labour cherishes serial Tory backbench disloyalty because it chips away at Cameron’s credentials as a man in command. The hope is that Miliband’s stature will be enhanced if the Prime Minister’s authority declines. Neither is growing much in the public’s estimation, but that is the peculiar, uninspiring nature of their race. Victory belongs to the one who shrinks the least.

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

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.