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The neo-Georgian Prime Minister

By the time he stands down, David Cameron's Britain will be neo-Georgian – a country that is, in effect, governed by a coterie of wealthy families competing for power.

An endearing story has it that when the aged Stanley Baldwin was asked at a meeting which ideas had influenced him, he replied – much to everyone’s surprise – that his view of politics had been shaped by the Victorian jurist Henry Maine. Baldwin, who had been prime minister three times and had dominated British politics during the interwar years, was not known for having a strong interest in political philosophy. Yet he took from Maine, he said, a belief that guided him through his political life. From a system founded on hierarchy and command, governance was moving towards one based on agreement and consent; society was advancing from status to contract. At this point, Baldwin paused, seemingly deep in thought: “Or was it the other way round?”

A much subtler figure than he liked to appear, Baldwin was most likely pulling his audience’s leg. It is not easy to imagine David Cameron displaying any such self-deprecating wit. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon begin and end Cameron at 10 (William Collins), their recent account of the Prime Minister’s first five years in power, by asking whether he “has claim to be considered the 21st-century Baldwin”. But the differences between the two are more instructive than any similarities there may be.

Like Baldwin, who knew how to use the power of radio to craft an image of himself as a rather ordinary person who just happened to be prime minister, Cameron has lodged himself in voters’ minds as someone who, despite his privileged background, understands their everyday concerns. Yet there can be few who view him as having Baldwin’s reliably sound judgement. A prime minister who almost triggered the break-up of the United Kingdom with his slapdash management of the Scottish independence referendum and became the first head of a British government since 1782 to be defeated in the Commons on a matter of war (when he lost the vote to take military action in Syria in 2013) does not leave an impression of being a steady hand on the tiller.

While Baldwin’s bluff exterior concealed a sceptical intelligence, there is no reason to suppose that Cameron is anything other than he appears to be – impressively quick on the uptake but, in essence, unthinking. This may be why he has been such a successful practitioner of the Blairite politics of perception management. If there were anything hidden beneath Cameron’s changing appearances, the successive faces he has projected into the world could have looked inauthentic.

These shifts are in character. From urging greater understanding of young offenders in 2006 – a stance mocked as urging people to “hug a hoodie” – he shifted to bewailing “broken Britain” in the run-up to the 2010 general election. Having presented an image of himself as a green crusader, he appointed a climate-change sceptic, Owen Paterson, as environment secretary in 2012. Around the same time, according to Call Me Dave (Biteback), Michael Ashcroft’s and Isabel Oakeshott’s much-discussed unauthorised biography, Cameron protested, during an internal debate about whether British farmers should do more conservation work in return for EU subsidies: “Why should we be the only saint in the brothel?” Soon after the election in May this year, he began dismantling renewable energy subsidies.

Such turns are the stuff of politics. But Cameron carries them off with exceptional ease and the reason for this is not that he is unusually skilful in duplicity. Instead, the figure that emerges from these two, quite different, but in some ways equally revealing books is of someone who does not need to dissemble because there is nothing beneath the surface. More than Tony Blair, whose ability to read the public mood was accompanied by a streak of messianic zeal that eventually destroyed him, Cameron is an archetypal embodiment of the hypermodern leader – prophetically anticipated by the Austrian novelist Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) – who succeeds by going nowhere. Cameron is a devoted moderniser who sees himself as a force for progress. Yet he has no particular destination or direction in mind and moves on easily from accidents that have derailed others. The stench of Iraq will surround Blair for the rest of his days. In contrast, Cameron has left behind his ruinous adventure in Libya with barely a stain on him.

It is often asked what vision of society Cameron promotes, yet it is only when you stop looking for any inner core of beliefs that you begin to get the measure of the man. Ashcroft and Oakeshott report a friend who knew him for more than a decade as observing, “He has rarely expressed any strong views in his life.” It is a trait that has served the Prime Minister well. Unburdened by conventional notions of Tory government, he was able to move quickly to seize the opportunity of power through coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

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The same freedom from fixed beliefs probably accounts for his most surprising initiative – pushing through same-sex marriage. A civilising measure that may come to be seen as his most lasting achievement, it was opposed at all levels of his party. It is to Cameron’s credit that he overrode this resistance. Yet even in this case Cameron’s stance was not based on any definite conviction. Having once voted in favour of a Conservative motion to retain a version of Section 28, Cameron shifted his views in the year before he become leader: in 2004, he voted in favour of civil partnerships. Ashcroft and Oakeshott recall how, later, in the run-up to the 2010 election, the Conservative leader “took the bold step of apologising for Section 28, telling a Gay Pride event that his party ‘got it wrong’”. It is hard to resist the thought that for him the matter was primarily one of brand management. However much he has tacked and trimmed, Cameron has remained faithful to the view of politics as a branch of advertising which he learned from Blair.

Written throughout in an off-putting present tense, Cameron at 10 is a half-term report, exhaustively and minutely detailed, which will be indispensable to future his­torians. But most readers will soon tire of its relentless blandness. Significant episodes are often lost in the dull narrative that surrounds them and when the authors venture to make a judgement it is thoroughly anodyne: Cameron, they conclude, is “a figure of real historical interest and substance”. Matthew d’Ancona’s In It Together (2013) is a far more compelling narrative of the coalition years, told with style and verve by a genuine insider.

Widely interpreted as payback for Cameron’s failure to reward Lord Ashcroft with a senior position in government, Call Me Dave has been criticised for the lurid tales it contains of Cameron’s time at Oxford. It is a pity that the authors felt it necessary to dwell on such tittle-tattle. There are more important issues arising from his career than from the undergraduate parties he attended, and Ashcroft’s and Oakeshott’s unforgiving account of his manoeuvrings has a cutting edge that is lacking in Seldon and Snowdon’s recitation of events.

The defining feature of Cameron’s career is a chronic disconnect between words, deeds and consequences. He is at his best when all that is needed from him is little more than a public declaration. He became party leader largely on the strength of a single speech that he delivered from memory at the October 2005 Conservative party conference. In what may be his finest hour, his apology in 2010 for the events of Bloody Sunday, he was brilliantly effective because no further action was required from him.

Cameron’s work as director of corporate affairs for the media company Carlton Communications, his only professional experience outside Westminster and a position he acquired by way of an intervention on the part of Annabel Astor, the mother of his future wife, Samantha, seems to have had a formative impact. In the world of PR, actions are episodic and discontinuous and their consequences ignored unless they have some immediate effect. All that matters is having a serviceable story, which is constructed to serve the purposes of the day, then discarded and forgotten.

Cameron’s defence and foreign policies are a case in point. He has strutted about belligerently, launching regime change in Libya that has left that country a jihadist-infested hellhole, and he still talks of removing Bashar al-Assad from Syria, though the result would be blood-soaked anarchy on a much larger scale. He seems not to have absorbed the reality that the question is out of Britain’s hands now that Russia has intervened and the United States is, in effect, withdrawing from Syria.

Britain’s military capacities have in any case been severely curtailed by the scale of the defence cuts he has implemented. Seldon and Snowdon write limply of Cameron’s foreign policy record: “Some say he lacks the strategic grasp of [Nick] Clegg or [George] Osborne and lacks a vision of Britain’s place in the world of a Thatcher or Blair. He is criticised for making hasty rather than considered judgements.” More revealingly, Ashcroft and Oakeshott cite the assessment of the former chief of the defence staff David Richards, who in the course of the Libya campaign told the Prime Minister that “being in the combined defence force at Eton was not a qualification for running the tactical detail of a complex coalition war effort”.

A certain carelessness runs throughout his approach to policymaking. Having declared the National Health Service his top priority in 2006, Cameron presided over Andrew Lansley’s botched reforms and then seemingly lost interest. Searching for a slogan that could give some sort of rationale to his policies, he fastened on “the big society” but his failure to give the idea any practical content led ultimately to the departure of his policy guru Steve Hilton, who may have taken Cameron’s demand for new thinking too seriously. Today, much of the work of government has been contracted out to Osborne, whose steely intelligence is turning a process of drift into something more like a coherent project.

What is emerging isn’t exactly Thatcherite, or neoliberal. Instead, it is a variety of mercantilism, with government not retreating from the marketplace but actively reshaping it so that it better serves the interests of trade and wealth accumulation. The current push to expand Britain’s economic links with China shows Osborne and Cameron using the power of government to guide the market in a way that would horrify any disciple of Milton Friedman. Strangely, this neo-mercantilism goes with a remarkably sunny attitude towards globalisation. It is hard to envision Margaret Thatcher being happy with the role of Chinese money and expertise in Britain’s strategically sensitive nuclear industry. Britain’s openness to world markets has direct social and economic costs – including the imminent loss of the country’s steel industry – and geopolitical risks are being disregarded casually. There is no sign of Palmerston’s realistic perception that today’s friends are also Britain’s rivals, and that they may some day become its enemies.

The Britain Cameron will leave behind when he departs for a life of chillaxing and shooting won’t be one modelled on a version of Victorian values. It will be neo-Georgian: a country that is, in effect, governed by a coterie of wealthy families that collude and compete for power and influence.

Cameron made a shrewd bid for the centre ground in a powerful speech at the Manchester party conference this month. But it is hard to reconcile this liberal rhetoric with policies that deepen social divisions, such as the withdrawal of tax credits for the working poor, that further limit social mobility by axing student maintenance grants and remove vital supports for the most vulnerable people in society, which will be the result of scrapping the Disability Living Allowance (a measure framed during the last Thatcher administration and implemented by John Major). Rather than widening opportunity, these are policies that will make personal independence harder for many people to achieve. The end result will be a society in which opportunity is concentrated in a single, self-perpetuating oligarchy.

A glimpse of what this “chumocracy” would produce appeared in Cameron’s honours list in August – a brazen exercise in cronyism that included a peerage for Douglas Hogg, the MP who claimed over £2,000 in expenses for clearing his moat. If the bandwagon rolls on, an 18th-century politics of patronage will become entrenched in 21st-century Britain. But there is a high hurdle to be overcome before this can be set securely in place. The obstacle does not lie in the political system, given that (aside from some restive Tories) the government has no effective opposition. In a performance reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There, the Labour leader has emerged from the walled garden of the hard left to wander around the country, dispensing gnomic observations about peace and kindness. It’s a surreal kind of theatre rather than a new type of politics. There is no risk to Cameron here.

It is the promised referendum on Europe – Osborne advised against it, according to Seldon and Snowdon, though the Chancellor denies this – that could destroy Cameron’s dream of making a graceful exit from government. In a fit of absent-mindedness that he may now regret, he let it be known that he would not be standing for a third term. However, he may not last long enough to have the choice. The future for him and for Osborne depends on their ability to return from Brussels with something that can be sold to increasingly mistrustful voters as a fundamental change to Britain’s place in Europe. If the bluff fails, all bets are off. Cameron could hardly survive as leader, and Osborne would be deeply damaged. It is not surprising that Boris Johnson seems to be edging towards supporting Brexit.

Ashcroft and Oakeshott devote many pages of their book to Cameron’s shifting attitudes to Europe, concluding with a reference to his “fundamental Euroscepticism”. The evidence they assemble points in a different direction. For Cameron, Europe has never been much more than a question of party management. The referendum was a wheeze, designed to put off the matter until another day, but now that the day has arrived, he finds himself trapped in a course of events over which he has little control.

The Conservative Party is no longer divided on Europe in the way it used to be. It is solidly Eurosceptic, and whatever Cameron and Osborne bring back from Brussels will be viewed with suspicion. At the same time, public opinion has hardened. As the EU stumbles, saddled with an unworkable currency and paralysed by the migrant crisis, its image as a safe option is giving way to the actuality of a failed experiment. It can no longer be taken for granted that pragmatism favours a continuation of the status quo. Despite all his bluster about renegotiation, this is what the Prime Minister will be offering.

It remains to be seen whether it will be enough. Seen from a longer perspective, David Cameron may turn out to represent the end of an age. If he manages to squeak through the referendum and resigns before the next election as he has promised, he will outlast Stanley Baldwin in the number of years he spends in Downing Street. Yet the politics of image management works only until reality breaks in. The last of the Blairites, Cameron may not be far from reaching that point with his gamble on Europe.

John Gray is a contributing writer for the New Statesman

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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