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He was the future once

David Cameron and the struggle to be modern.

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.

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

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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