David and George enter Phase Two

If Blair and Brown were Lennon and McCartney, who are Cameron and Osborne? Mick and Keith? Ant and D

"It was a huge relief. At least we are talking about how we would run the country, not how 'green' and lovely we are." That was the reaction of one Tory backbencher after the Conservative Party published a consultation put forward by John Redwood on tax and red tape on 17 August. There were whispers that Redwood had launched the document at a time when Cameron was not around so that he could push ideas as party policy. This is not true. The Tory leader has rubber-stamped all the consultations he commissioned, safe in the knowledge that he does not have to take on board any of the proposals submitted. (These reports are merely consultations.) Four days later, another report followed and Cameron gave a measured performance on the Today programme talking about the NHS and social breakdown.

This is Cameron venturing into Phase Two, and it's about time. For weeks now the party has gone through dirge, exasperation and openly admitted surprise at the power of Brown's bounce. Lethargic MPs, candidates and party members have been getting irritable, and historically this has always been trouble for a party that refuses to see its own fickleness as an obstacle. A usually sanguine shadow minister mumbled to colleagues last week: "Heir to Blair? We're going down the road of Heir to Kinnock."

Cameron's "bare-knuckle" fight on the NHS, against the downgrading of services at district hospitals, has finally focused the Conservatives in the political centre. The shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley (affectionately nicknamed "Angela Lansbury"), is particularly comforted. It was a grimacing Lansley who had to sit through a press conference in May when he launched the health white paper with Cameron but received no coverage, as it was at the height of the grammar schools debacle.

News of a possible October election has not created much of a stir. At the time of going to press, after much debate in the media about possible election dates, only one "stand by your beds" email had been sent to MPs and candidates from the party chairman, Caroline Spelman. "It had all the urgency of a dental tooth scrape reminder," says one recipient. Back at Conservative campaign headquarters, possible election fever mania is also being treated with a laid-back approach. There is a reduced work rota because of recess and the girls while away the hours at the City Inn bar playing Musical Miliband Three-Way, a game whose complex title far outweighs the simplicity of the slightly rude rules.

In the past, the chairman has usually been in charge of an election campaign, but Cameron has appointed his shadow chancellor, George Osborne. This is certainly not a slight to likeable Spelman, but Cameron displaying trust and loyalty to a friend who backed him from the very beginning. David and George have a very different relationship from Tony and Gordon. They were both hot tickets in the Conservative Research Department and were special advisers before becoming MPs. A close friend says, "They have a very mature relationship: it's not quite Rolf Harris 'Two Little Boys' stuff, but they have similar backgrounds and an understanding of each other that has been cultivated over years."

A Cameron aide backing this theory says, "With Blair and Brown it was obvious that neither could trust the other. George and David share a strong sense of mutual respect. They instinctively know how the other will react, so conflict is avoided. You are more likely to see them with their wives and children at a mutual chum's BBQ than doing deals in a restaurant."

An ex-CCHQ senior researcher recalls when David and George were fledgling MPs and attending Prime Minister's Questions preparation for Iain Duncan Smith. "The pair of them would walk in, were slightly dismissive of IDS, would rip up the script, give their lines, eat a croissant and breeze out." He adds, "The air of confidence and self-assurance was magnificent. There was, of course, an inner desire to punch them."

Cameron and Osborne share a suite of offices, which allows them to bounce ideas off each other daily. There is no rivalry between the camps that work for them, and no sense of George wanting to be leader; he is comfortable in his secondary role. At the moment.

Osborne will come into his own this autumn, featuring in numerous glossy magazines over the next few months. Currently he appears in Esquire's "Ten admired men" (apparently the fashion director "came over all funny" when she saw the proofs of the young shadow chancellor shivering by the Houses of Parliament).

If the much-repeated analogy of Blair and Brown was Lennon and McCartney, who are David Cameron and George Osborne? Perhaps it is too early to say. Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Mick and Keith, Ant and Dec? The general election will be a test of their partnership.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times