The quality that David Cameron and George Osborne want voters to admire most in a politician is the ability to make hard choices. In his Budget on 20 March the Chancellor repeatedly boasted of how “tough” he was being on public-sector pay, on welfare spending, on the deficit and on what Tories suppose are the causes of the deficit.
The same swagger was on show in the Prime Minister’s big post-Budget announcement – a policy of limiting immigrants’ access to benefits and social housing, reported inevitably as a “crackdown”. It isn’t yet clear whether Cameron is most offended by the target families’ foreignness, their poverty or their want of somewhere to live.
Tackling immigration and welfare with menaces is the old clenched-fist model of Tory toughness that Cameron once said was not his style. That he now strikes the pose suggests submission to the advice of Lynton Crosby, Downing Street’s pugnacious Australian election strategist. (Some foreign nationals are more welcome than others.) No 10 calculates that Cameron’s muscular affectations better suit public expectations of a national leader than Ed Miliband’s intellectual refinement. So over the next two years the Tories will attack the Labour leader for lacking the gumption to govern in austere times. The pillory is built on opinion polls taken in marginal seats, where voters’ biggest complaints about the last government are that it opened the borders and squandered money on benefits.
Those are also the topics where the gulf is widest between what the public thinks and what Labour members wish the public would think. Miliband knows the gap must be narrowed but he approaches the task with caution. Westminster opinion seems evenly divided between those who think that is a mark of strategic cunning – choosing not to distract attention from coalition strife by provoking rebellion on his own side – and those who see it as ruinous timidity.
A warning of how difficult Miliband’s task will be came in a recent welfare vote. A bill is being rushed through parliament to address a legal ruling striking down the government’s authority to impose sanctions on benefit claimants judged not to be seeking work. Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, agreed not to oppose the measure, in exchange for minor concessions. Labour formally abstained, to the fury of party activists, trade unions and some MPs, 43 of whom defied the whip.
The dispute expresses tension between different views of what opposition is about – dogged protest against the government or rehearsal to be a plausible replacement? The rebels are appalled that their party is acquiescing in what they see as vindictiveness towards the unemployed. The awkward reality is that, if elected, Labour’s welfare policy would include sanctions, just as it did before 2010. Without that component there is no chance of winning consent for more generous social interventions and Miliband knows it. So he approved Byrne’s decision and lobbied MPs privately to support the abstention. “Compared to things we’d have to do in government, this was not a difficult decision,” notes one senior Labour source. Yet the ferocious backlash represents just a fraction of the trouble brewing for the future.
In areas that aren’t too fissile for his party, Miliband has a mini-portfolio of tough calls made. He broke with Westminster convention by attacking Rupert Murdoch over phone-hacking. He refused to match Cameron’s pledge of a European referendum when most of the press declared that path suicidal. He generally refuses to sit the tests that Conservatives and hostile media set as measures of his credibility – backing specific cuts, for example, or signing up to spending caps. Some senior Labour figures see that reluctance as naive but even the sceptics accept that Miliband’s stance requires integrity and strength of will, as do an increasing number of Tories.
The same cannot be said of the Prime Minister. Downing Street strategists have nominated toughness as their ultimate virtue mainly because Cameron’s record rules out so many other qualities. He isn’t a bringer of prosperity. He can’t fly a flag for compassion, consistency or competence. Much of what he has done has come about by accident. He was bounced into the Leveson inquiry against his will. The promise of an EU referendum that his friends pretend is the apogee of boldness was dragged out of him by rebellious MPs.
Even with deficit reduction, the hardest choices are made by other ministers and local authorities. Cameron and Osborne insist that cuts must happen but stay insulated from the consequences. Their vaunted fiscal bravery is all delegation.
Cameron’s one authentic act of political courage was legislating for gay marriage, despite fierce grass-roots opposition. He didn’t get much credit for it because people on both sides of the argument presumed he was engaged in cynical brand management.
That perception will always undermine the Prime Minister’s claim to be a great decision-maker. He is right that Labour is vulnerable as long as Miliband defers tricky policy choices, but he is deluded if he thinks he stands for Solomonic judgement. What Cameron calls leading the country on the tough road to recovery looks suspiciously like becoming the path of least resistance in the Tory party. When he thinks he is showing steel, the rest of us see plastic.