100 days of Dave

Tim Montgomerie runs through the ten moments that define David Cameron’s first three months in power

1 Cameron lost the loyalty of the right when he didn't win the general election outright

Conservative MPs have worried about Team David Cameron's electoral strategy ever since he became leader in 2005. Before the election, they were especially concerned about the lack of a clear message and about George Osborne's unpopularity. They could not understand why the Liberal Democrats were given equal status in the televised debates. They told Conservative HQ that the "big society" message needed to be more "doorstep-friendly". The Tory leadership's answer to every criticism of strategy was to look at the opinion polls. "Trust us, we're more than 10 per cent ahead," they said.

By election time, the lead shrank and a majority never came. Cameron's failure to win an election against a divided government, presiding over a deep recession and led by a prime minister whom 100 political academics have just rated the third worst since 1945, means he will never again get the same benefit of the doubt from Conservative members.

He compounded his problems with the party by trying to end backbench control of the 1922 Committee. The committee had been a thorn in John Major's side throughout the early 1990s; the former premier apparently advised Cameron to neutralise it. Cameron was forced to retreat in the face of anger and, in protest, MPs voted for the independent-minded Graham Brady as their new shop steward.

A great leader needs a wide range of qualities. We know that Cameron is brave, media- friendly and intelligent. But party management is also an important skill. Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and even Gordon Brown were good at the courtesies that are essential, if not sufficient, for harmonious parties. When she'd completed her red boxes, late into the night, Thatcher turned to a list of people who, at her insistence, her advisers had recommended deserved a handwritten note.

Cameron needs to improve this aspect of his leadership style. Few if any of the 37 Tory frontbenchers who did not make it into government because of the election result received any communication from him. Three months into his premiership, he hasn't spoken even one word to some of the MPs he didn't make ministers.

2 Cameron seized victory from defeat with his bold coalition deal

If failing to win a majority was his great failure, his boldness on the day after the election was Cameron's great success. He saw the potential in a "change alliance" of the kind that the blogger Guido Fawkes and the think tank head Mark Littlewood had long advocated. He made a "comprehensive offer" to Nick Clegg to form a coalition government that has the potential to change British politics for ever. Appointing a Liberal Democrat to nearly every Whitehall department did two things, one Downing Street insider told me: "It bound Clegg to every tough decision but it also minimised the number of Liberal Democrats who would be outside the tent, pissing in."

The emphasis he had placed as Tory leader on gay rights, civil liberties, climate change and fighting poverty may not have won the election, but it made the Con-Lib deal possible. The offer of a referendum on AV turned the deal from possible to done. Controversy still surrounds the events leading up to that event. Cameron led Tory MPs to believe that he needed to match an offer that Labour had made. Those MPs have subsequently learned that Labour made no such offer. At best, Team Cameron can be accused of not asking enough questions to establish the truth and, at worst, of misleading Conservative backbenchers.

3 In the handling of David Laws's resignation, the two parties bonded

Few early events in the government did more to build trust between the blue and yellow halves of the coalition than the handling of the revelations about David Laws's living arrangements. Over the 24 hours from when the story broke to when the then chief secretary to the Treasury resigned, it was impossible to know which aides were Tory and which were Liberal Democrats. The Downing Street teams almost became one in that moment, every member batting hard for their embattled colleague.

The Prime Minister's warm letter to Laws, accepting his resignation but hoping that he'd make a speedy return, was the culmination of a period that cemented the Clegg-Cameron-Osborne alliance. The overwhelming sense that I get from talking to Tory frontbenchers is that their Liberal Democrat ministerial colleagues are acting as one of the team and are being treated as such. The closeness means that, in reality, there are three parts of the coalition: 1) the almost indistinguishable front benches; 2) the Tory right; 3) the left of the Liberal Democrats who, in their hearts, would still have preferred a deal with Labour.

4 A decision to send inexperienced ministers into unfriendly departments with fewer political advisers

During the opposition years, Cameron made the decision to reduce the number of ministerial special advisers (SpAds). Under Labour there was a suspicion that SpAds had morphed into spin doctors and were an unnecessary burden on the stretched public purse. Remember Jo Moore, who worked for Stephen Byers, and her advice "to get out anything we want to bury" on the day of the 11 September 2001 attacks?

Cameron could and should have revisited this pledge when he and Clegg were junking other manifesto promises. For the sake of two or three million pounds a troop of extra SpAds would have reinforced ministers' attempts to master their departments. The cap on SpAds means inexperienced ministers are having to make historically unprecedented cuts with a bureaucracy that is itself being cut.

Even Cameron has been the victim of this policy and has been unable to appoint some key allies to strengthen his Downing Street operation, although some are being shoehorned into civil service roles. Don't be surprised if this policy is "updated" next month.

5 The appointment of Iain Duncan Smith to think the unthinkable on welfare

Cameron made many fascinating appointments but none was more surprising than the return of Iain Duncan Smith to the front line of politics. Many feared that IDS could not tame the sprawling Department for Work and Pensions, but anyone who has paid any attention to his years in the political wilderness couldn't question his missionary commitment to fight the war on poverty in bold new ways.

George Osborne may not have read the report on overhauling the benefits system that the Centre for Social Justice produced when IDS was its chairman, but it was not exactly a secret that this was the former Tory leader's agenda. IDS has formed an unlikely alliance with Clegg to design a benefits system that rewards low-paid workers. The Deputy Prime Minister, spurred on by his key adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, may be decisive if IDS is to overcome resistance from Osborne's Treasury in what may become a bloodier battle than the other great blue-on-blue conflict - between the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, and No 11 Downing Street.

6 The Osborne Budget that did not restructure the tax system

George Osborne won much acclaim from Tory MPs and the right-wing press for his "emergency" Budget. The scale of his deficit reduction plan was certainly ambitious and, because of his candour and boldness, he was voted the country's most popular ever chancellor by one pollster. Over time, however, as the drip, drip, drip of spending cuts has become apparent, approval of the coalition has declined.

Missing from Osborne's Budget was a major plan for growth. The scale of the economic crisis demanded a more profound restructuring of the tax system. Osborne should, for example, have raised "sin taxes" (on pollution, expensive housing and fatty foods) in order to fund lower taxes on jobs and investment. Becoming the party that redistributes from the unproductive to the productive can still be a coalition objective, but if Osborne hasn't acted by the autumn it will probably be too late.

7 The backlash against Michael Gove's cuts is a sign of the unpopularity to come

Michael Gove was widely regarded as one of the Tories' fastest-rising stars when he became Education Secretary, but the man who was an excellent newspaper columnist and innovative thought-leader in opposition proves yet again that a very specific set of skills is needed to deliver a programme in government. The backlash to his bungled announcement of cuts to Labour's bloated school-building programme was a warning to every member of the coalition that public opinion is likely to be far less forgiving when the detail of spending cuts is finally revealed in the autumn.

8 Andrew Lansley's pledge to reform the National Health Service confirms the coalition's hyperactivity

Tory radicals worried that Cameron would be another Blair and that he would minimise the policy reforms that might jeopardise his re-election. David Davis may have called it the "Brokeback Coalition" but, say others, the government looks more like a "breakneck coalition". It is advancing at speed on multiple fronts. Reform of schools, policing and local government was expected. Big cuts to spending were unavoidable. More interesting has been the unexpectedly ambitious proposed reforms to the NHS and the welfare state. Andrew Lansley's conversion to proposing a sweeping reorganisation of the NHS is perhaps the most surprising. The Health Secretary was regarded as the epitome of caution in opposition, but his unexpected pledge to replace English primary care trusts (PCTs still featured in May's coalition agreement) adds another ball to Cameron's extraordinary juggling act.

9 The decision to reverse the Conservatives' prison-building programme

Although the coalition starts with a programme of reforms that should delight every Conservative, the trajectory of the coalition is clear: it is heading leftwards or it is heading for breakdown. The Liberal Democrats have lost so many of their left-wing voters that Cameron has to give them concessions that will prevent defections of MPs and big losses in next year's Scottish, Welsh and municipal elections. Ultimately this may include a non-aggression pact whereby Tory candidates won't threaten vulnerable Liberal Democrat incumbents.

The policy concession that may cause most problems for the Tories isn't Trident or Europe (where backsliding has been marked), but the much more earthy decision to go into reverse gear on prison policy. To be fair to the Tories, the policy is as much Ken Clarke's as it is the Liberal Democrats', but anger stretches from Michael Howard in the House of Lords to the Daily Mail and even the Sun on Fleet Street. You can be sure that the Mail will splash-headline any crime committed by someone they think would have been in jail if the Tory manifesto pledge on prison-building had been executed.

10 Cameron's decision to work shorter hours than his predecessors

If you are a Conservative leader, the highest accolade is to be elevated to a position alongside Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill. Cameron may have been in Downing Street barely three months, but the new Prime Minister was recently introduced to readers of the New York Times as being more ambitious than the Iron Lady. Even colleagues are making the comparison. But if the Cameron government is to match Thatcher's ambition, it also needs her work ethic.

Blair talked of the scars on his back sustained through trying to reform Britain's public services. Effective reform is only 10 per cent inspiration, but 90 per cent perspiration.

Will Cameron have the Thatcher-like resilience to survive the bureaucratic backlash that awaits his government when the cuts start to bite? Will he have Thatcher's work ethic, either? She spent most evenings working on government papers and her family life suffered because of it.

Cameron, it seems, doesn't arrive at his desk in No 10 until 8.30am and has left by 7pm. Away from that desk, he may be working privately, but he certainly finishes earlier than his Downing Street predecessors. An inattention to detail has long worried some of his aides. A failure to master briefs was evident in the election debates and also in his accurate but ill-chosen remarks about Pakistan. It's not enough to get the big judgements right if you get the details wrong. Government really is that unforgiving.

Tim Montgomerie is the editor of ConservativeHome.

Tim Montgomerie is the editor of the ConservativeHome website.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge