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Cameron is a great head prefect but what does he believe in?

The PM has never really possessed his party’s soul.

David Cameron’s government has been accused of many things in the past few weeks but lack of modernity isn’t one of them. Competence, coherence, empathy, strategy, judgement, sage advice, dependable staff – all of these have been declared in short supply during the long unravelling of the Budget that, punctuated by panic over petrol supplies, has formed Downing Street’s longest streak of high-visibility ineptitude since the general election. But at no point has it been suggested that antique social attitudes lurking in the Tory party – objection to gay marriage, for example, or intolerance of Britain’s racial diversity, or insensitivity to the plight of Arctic ice sheets – are to blame for the Prime Minister’s difficulties.

It turns out that many of the issues defining the “modernisation” drive that Cameron thought essential in propelling the Conservatives to electoral victory are peripheral to the business of government. That doesn’t mean modernisation was a con or a dead end. (Most of the Labour party insists it was the former and many Tory curmudgeons think it was the latter.) When Cameron became leader more than six years ago, he was right to force his party to imbibe some of the spirit of the age, which then happened to be booming, cosmopolitan, liberal, eco-urbanity. The alternative was unelectable, wallowing in mean-spirited reaction.

Old boy not-work

But modernisation, by definition, is something that seems like a good idea at the time. Then the times change. Cameron’s current woes are indigenous to the new era of austerity. Something has plainly gone wrong with the presentation of a Budget when grannies, pasties and charities are portrayed as victims of punitive taxation. But bad ideas can usually be ditched without causing much long-term damage to a government. Cameron’s problem is more about credentials than policies. It is the incongruity of a small number of rich people – old chums from old schools – inflicting hardship, which they call unavoidable but do not themselves endure.

Cameron’s original Tory modernisation plans, conceived at the decadent height of the boom, made no provision for this hazard. Class was no more a preoccupation of British politics in 2006 than deficit reduction, and the Tory leadership was no better at spotting a financial emergency round the corner than Gordon Brown. Until November 2008, George Osborne, as shadow chancellor, was committed to matching Labour spending plans – a pledge quickly forgotten once it became imperative to blame every budget cruelty on the last government’s profligacy.

The last drops of political advantage are now being wrung from that argument. Even if people still believe Labour left a mess, they expect ministers to clear it up, not use it as an excuse for ongoing misery. As the retrospective explanation for austerity loses currency, pressure increases on the Prime Minister to describe the destination at the end of his arduous fiscal odyssey.

It is the absence of such a story that casts Cameron and Osborne’s elite backgrounds in such unfavourable light. Few people would care how rich their leaders were or what schools they went to if they had a persuasive plan to get the economy moving. Britain is not on the brink of Marxist insurgency. It just so happens that posh-boy insouciance is a handy way to caricature the intellectual inadequacy of the Cameron project.

Downing Street aides say they recognise the need for the Prime Minister to explain where he thinks he is leading Britain; what he believes in apart from austerity. But there is rising suspicion in the Conservative Party that Cameron doesn’t know the answer to that question and can’t  really be bothered to work it out.

That complaint, once confined to the right of the party, has spread to erstwhile loyalists. “He doesn’t really believe in anything other than being Prime Minister,” is how one disillusioned Cameroon insider puts it. “He likes being head prefect.” It is a recurrent image: the Tory leader as someone groomed to wear the robes of high office and rather too comfortable lounging around in them. One senior civil servant paints Cameron as the archetypal head boy: “a competent all-rounder, lacking real passion”. Even his closest supporters say he is inclined to view intellectual enthusiasm with a mixture of bafflement and horror.

An irony, not lost on those Tories who have been sidelined in the name of modernisation, is that this tendency is essentially old-fashioned, representing a pre-Thatcher strain of patrician, steady-as-she-goes Conservatism. Cameron might get away with that if the ship of state were going somewhere steadily, but she is becalmed. That provokes a craving for ideological vigour in a leader – precisely the characteristic that is alien to Cameron’s nature. He has always outsourced animation by ideas to Steve Hilton, his excitable director of policy, but Hilton is quitting Downing Street for an extended sabbatical in California.  

Cleggo land

Fear that the Tories are intellectually adrift is exacerbated by resentment of the freedom enjoyed by Liberal Democrats, carving out their own identity within the coalition. Grumpy right-wingers have long seen the Lib Dems as perverts, sullying government with weird affection for Europe, windmills and red tape. Now, increasingly, the Cameroons are fed up with Nick Clegg snatching the credit for any policy that contains a whiff of compassion for the less well-off. Tory MPs who once celebrated partnership with the Lib Dems as a happy confluence of centre-right traditions now denounce their governing partners as deceitful and cynical.

Soft Tory liberals and hard Thatcherite revivalists feel equally suffocated by coalition and impatient to debate the future direction of their party. Cameron and Osborne, while unchallenged in their jobs, are becoming marginal to that discussion. They have spent the past six years thinking of the Tory party as the problem and themselves as the only solution. The past few weeks have made that a more questionable proposition. Cameron’s hold on the leadership is secure enough – there is no alternative – but he has never really possessed the party’s soul. That prize is still very much up for grabs.

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

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial