He was the future once

David Cameron and the struggle to be modern.

Montage: Dan Murrell/NS

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as Conservative leader than his three most recent predecessors put together. If he makes it as far as a May 2015 general election, he will have held on to the job for nearly a decade.

Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in command of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is none of those things. He also wears the shopworn look badly because his leadership was founded on the pledge to be modern.

This is no minor point of style. The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition. So was complacency about the economic outlook. Tories today deride Gordon Brown’s boast about having eliminated the boom-bust cycle, yet the scale of Labour’s hubris is also a measure of Cameron’s credulity. His only economic policy was to share the proceeds of growth. Before the crash, he and George Osborne matched Brown’s spending plans. That was another country. It was “Cool Britannia”, the republic of swinging urbanity whose coronation party was New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory and whose crown Cameron was claiming when he declared of Blair, in their first parliamentary confrontation in 2005, “He was the future – once!”

The opposite of Cool Britannia is Ukip Rising. There are many reasons why support for a fringe party might soar after the financial crisis: frozen wages, shrinking services and climbing living costs. The Tories are in charge of a mess. Labour is too keenly remembered as the author of the mess to look like the obvious remedy. The Liberal Democrats, once a receptacle for protest votes, are disqualified by incumbency.

Yet Nigel Farage’s new celebrity describes more than a groundswell of economic malaise. Many of his voters suffer under straitened circumstances but many do not. Much flirting with Ukip goes on in affluent shire constituencies and in the pages of Tory-leaning newspapers. It is this component, animating the rebellious urges of Conservative MPs, that gives Farage’s insurgency an infusion of establishment respectability even when it claims to be anti-establishment. Farage’s best hope of a parliamentary breakthrough is a Tory defection in a safe seat.

Cultural revanchism is more important as a driver of Ukip’s fortunes than financial distress. The party appeals to resentment of social changes that began before New Labour but accelerated under it. Ukip pines for a country that was ethnically less diverse, in which homosexuality was a guilty secret and where women did not work in the same jobs and for the same pay as men.

Farage gives those who are struggling to adapt to changing times permission to blame someone else. He indulges the suspicion that smug, effeminate, multicultural liberals victimise straight, white folk. Their instruments of oppression are European integration, human rights law, environmentalism and “political correctness”. The ultimate symbol of bien-pensant colonisation is the ban on smoking in pubs.

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass the same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges his supporters to “take our country back”.

The Ukip leader’s act of wounded disenfranchisement infuriates pro-Cameron Tories. Farage, they point out, is the son of a stockbroker who went to public school and worked in the City. He causes the most mischief in southern Tory seats, which have escaped the worst of the recession. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?”

Not so many, actually. Opinion polls show that Ukip voters are more likely to earn below the national average than Tories. They are also disproportionately white, male, over 60 and without a university education. Frustrated Tory moderates are right to the extent that backbench rebellion with a Ukip flavour – urging withdrawal from the European Union; recoiling from gay marriage – is a more popular sport among MPs with comfortable majorities. Conservatives in unsafe seats are more likely to have urban and non-white constituents who preferred Cameron when he was changing his party. They are not seduced by reactionary venom.

While Ukip can pick up votes from across the political spectrum with a menu of complaints about crime, immigration and Europe, Tories shorten their reach by chasing the same agenda. People expect different things from a protest party and a serious party of government. They might mistrust the EU, yet still be put off when Conservatives harp on about nothing else. Farage’s function is to channel disappointment with the turn that the nation has taken. Cameron’s job is to convince the country that he has set it on the right track. They are incompatible aims.

Labour has a variation of the same problem. When Ed Miliband became leader of his party, he expected to have a monopoly on opposition. He also judged that the Conservatives, under the haughty command of Cameron and his millionaire chums, would struggle to win the affections of low- and middle-income families on which the burden of austerity falls hardest. Miliband was right to identify the “squeezed middle” as the vital electoral audience but wrong to think he could have it to himself.

In recent by-elections, Ukip has proved capable of eating into potential Labour support, including in northern seats – Rotherham and South Shields – that are no-go areas for Tories. A right-wing populist movement that targets immigration and welfare is plainly a threat to Labour when those are the issues in which its record in government is deemed most toxic.

The decay of a working-class base has strengthened the hand of those around Miliband who urge a “Blue Labour” emphasis on traditional values – community, family, civic pride and patriotism. According to this view, the Blair-Brown years were spoiled by capitulation to market forces and government by remote bureaucracy. That led to fatal atrophy in the connection between the state and its citizens.

There are two problems with this school. First, it trades in evanescent language that won’t be moulded into campaign slogans. Second, it is nostalgic for a spirit of left solidarity that is unfamiliar to many voters and so contains no accessible guide to what the next Labour government might feel like.

Miliband is fond of saying that his greatest adversary is fatalism, by which he means voters despairing of the potential for politics to solve their problems and so surrendering to austerity. His “one nation” creed is meant to counter that threat with an uplifting offer of economic reconstruction. Yet Labour’s more prominent message is rejection of cuts and horror at their consequences, combined with the cagiest acknowledgement that spending restraint is inevitable. Miliband’s optimistic rhetoric is sabotaged by the tacit pessimism of indecision. It is as if the party is not articulating a vision of the future because the prospect of governing with little money is too grim to contemplate. As one shadow cabinet minister tells me: “We’re complaining about the conditions on the ship. We’re not getting across the sense that the ship needs to be going in a different direction.”

Miliband still has a more plausible claim on the future than Cameron. Labour supporters are younger and more diverse. The Tories’ inability to reach voters in northern cities and its toxicity to immigrant communities is lethal. It raises the spectre of what one Conservative strategist calls “the Mitt Romney problem” – a reference to the demographic decline in the core Republican vote that risks locking the American right out of the White House for the foreseeable future. Tories would do well to heed the blunt assessment by the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham of his party’s prospects: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” For Cameron, it is worse. He is splitting the angry-whiteguy vote with Ukip.

Cameron wants to tell a forward-looking story about equipping Britain to compete in the “global race”. This is at heart a liberal message of openness and international engagement. It is drowned out by the noisier tom-toms in the Tory party, sounding the retreat from the 21st century. The troops are regrouping as a dispossessed army of ageing, vanquished culture warriors.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task. He is defined in the public eye as a man who tried to be modern and failed. He spent his sunniest phrases in the early years of his leadership peddling a complacent brand of optimism that was defunct before he even entered Downing Street. Any politician is lucky to be feted as the future once. Cameron cannot be the future twice.