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5 February 2015

Where Thatcher feared to tread: Cameron’s Coup shows a man on a mission

Polly Toynbee and David Walker's Cameron's Coup is an unashamedly caustic review of the last five years.

By George Eaton

Cameron’s Coup: How the Tories Took Britain to the Brink
Polly Toynbee and David Walker
Guardian Faber, 314pp, £9.99

When Conservative MPs discuss the next general election, they frequently assert that they “deserve to win”. They believe that their record merits the parliamentary majority they failed to secure in 2010. Such is the conviction with which they state their achievements – the halving of the deficit, a record number in employment, the highest-ever level of GDP – that even non-Tories are prone to ask whether the government’s opponents have exaggerated its defects.

The answer, as this audit of its time in office shows, is not by much. Polly Toynbee, the Guardian’s social-democratic doyenne, and her husband and fellow journalist, David Walker, cast the same forensic eye over the coalition as they did over New Labour (in 2010’s The Verdict) and find it wanting in almost every respect. Through a combination of “dogma and disarray”, the government has repeatedly flouted the injunction to “first, do no harm”, inflicting wounds on the public realm that will not heal easily.

The “coup” of the title refers to the alacrity with which Cameron grasped the opportunity created by the financial crisis to impose an unbalanced austerity programme and extend market rule in areas (the NHS, Royal Mail, RAF search and rescue) where Thatcher feared to tread. Toynbee and Walker write perceptively about how Cameron’s emollient manner and One Nation platitudes obscured his radicalism. His beliefs stemmed not from dense ideological training but from an osmotic absorption of Thatcherism’s “working assumptions”: the state is an impediment, an obstacle, oversized; the market solves all ills and returns a profit to our pals and our people.

In pursuing this path, Cameron encountered none of the internal opposition that Thatcher faced after her election in 1979. Indeed, owing to the Conservative Party’s new centre of political gravity, the chief Tory criticism of his programme was its alleged moderation. The right – “free market, small state, low tax, tight borders, tougher sentences, eco- and Euro-sceptical” (in the academic Tim Bale’s description) – reigned unchallenged. In most cases, the Liberal Democrats acted as a bridge, rather than a roadblock. Nick Clegg happily jettisoned policy commitments (opposition to immediate spending cuts and higher tuition fees) that his party had lumbered him with.

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The result was that Britain was taken “to the brink”: a subtitle that reflects the recrudescence of social ills long thought banished (hunger, poverty wages) and the near-death experience of the Scottish independence referendum. “Contracting, privatisation, the assault on the NHS and social cleansing through the bedroom tax had all been devised without any consideration for how they might play in places on the periphery or in political cultures where Tories and their world-view are a minor or negligible presence,” the authors accurately surmise.

Not even the Conservatives had the chutzpah to claim credit for saving the Union but they showed no such hesitancy in other cases, treating failures as acts of God and successes as their own work. The economy exceeded its pre-recession peak but only after years of stagnation, leaving GDP per capita well below its previous level.

Employment rose to a record 30.8 million but only by means of the creation of an involuntary army of the self-employed and zero-hours workers, accounting for the associated slide in productivity and living standards. The deficit was halved as a share of GDP but this was the very target that Osborne derided as dangerously profligate when he declared his original ambition to all but eliminate borrowing. The hole in the public finances made some degree of austerity inevitable (as it would have done under Labour) but the damage was exacerbated by experiments that ran free of their creators: the NHS reorganisation, free schools, Universal Credit and probation privatisation.

Toynbee’s and Walker’s style is not subtle (the coalition’s welfare cuts are described as a “chainsaw massacre”) and many of those who do not share their centre-left assumptions and visceral anti-Toryism will be repelled. They occasionally commit the error of assuming that once they have identified the worst possible motive for an act, they have also identified the correct one. Those few measures for which the coalition deserves praise, such as the increase in foreign aid and equal marriage, are too readily dismissed (“Cue pictures of the happy pairs,” they churlishly respond to the latter).

But the government’s record is one that demands an unashamedly caustic critique and Toynbee and Walker deliver it with brio. It is to be hoped that they do not have cause to write a sequel. If the past five years of Conservative rule have taken Britain “to the brink”, another five could tip it over.