Why David Cameron may not have long to savour his success

Cameron must manage a majority even smaller than John Major’s while delivering an inevitably divisive referendum.

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The Tories who witnessed the Major years still bear some scar tissue and David Cameron is no exception. The absence of triumphalism with which he greeted his and his party’s victory this month (and that has been sedulously maintained since) was conditioned by memories of 1992: another result that almost no one, apart from some who were fighting for it, expected. That victory turned to disaster in five months with the debacle of Black Wednesday. The ensuing battles over Britain’s place in Europe paved the way for the Blair landslide of 1997.

The great challenge for Cameron is to manage a majority even smaller than John Major’s – this year’s 12 against 21 in 1992 – while delivering a promised, inevitably divisive referendum over Britain’s membership of the EU. There will be no Black Wednesday in a few months to destabilise him and, as Cameron-sceptics such as Alan Duncan and David Davis have said, hardliners will be slow to undermine the Prime Minister precisely because so many remember 1992-97 and the locust years that followed.

The retention of Iain Duncan Smith and the promotion of John Whittingdale – whose first Whitehall job was as Margaret Thatcher’s political secretary – to Culture Secretary show that Cameron realises he must accommodate the right. A charm offensive for backbenchers is also under way, even though some of those most in need of it will be those most resistant to it. Cameron knows that the right of his party has priorities of its own and it expects him to respect them, now that the excuse of having the Liberal Democrats to placate is gone. On top of all that, there is Scotland.

Like most journalists, I heard messages during the campaign from some Tory candidates that made a mockery of the opinion polls. More than once, the editor of this magazine asked me, before I wrote reports of local Tory optimism, what the candidates knew that the pollsters and everybody else did not. The answer appears to have been that the candidates were connecting with an innate conservatism in voters worried about a Labour Party acting as though it were 1983 – and the possibilities of a ­Labour pact with the SNP which seemed, to some in England, almost Bolshevist in its potential.

This explains the serene confidence of many Tories during the campaign, especially those in the West Country, where they saw the Lib Dem wipeout coming, and in marginals, where Labour’s message came over as largely irrelevant. When they expressed that confidence, many thought that they were exaggerating, or worse. They weren’t. The centre had shifted and the Tories were instrumental in shifting it. However, as so often in the past, it was their opposition that put them into power.

The identification by many Tory MPs with the values of their voters and their belief that the new government has a duty to make sure that those values prevail in the formulation and execution of policy will sometimes challenge Cameron’s more progressive inclinations. If MPs sense that these values are being ignored, this will provoke the right to make its voice heard in a way it could not over the past five years. Many on the right believed that Cameron had positively welcomed a coalition with a party with whose tone he personally had much in common; some even felt that he would have preferred to have another one rather than to govern alone. They are delighted that those days are over but are under no illusions how much of a struggle they will have to put Cameron on a course that they find acceptable.

First, he must sort out the fundamentals of our political settlement, which will require sorting out the constitution. He will have full-throated support from his party for a measure which ensures that only MPs sitting for English seats vote on matters that affect only England. And, however dismayed opposition MPs will be by this, he will know that he is making a logical and fair case: for these will be issues that the Scots and the Welsh and, in most cases, the Northern Irish quite rightly decide for themselves. He will know, too, that some Labour MPs who understand the nature of their party’s defeat grasp the importance of being seen to recognise English aspirations.

Cameron should be under no illusions that in doing so he will, however, be creating a federal system in embryo. And he needs to be realistic and tell the British public that the mood in all four constituent parts of the kingdom makes that inevitable. Having English votes for English laws is the natural concomitant of the more extensive fiscal powers promised to the Scots before last September’s referendum. Whether even the granting of those powers will be enough, given the new state of Scottish democratic opinion, is highly questionable.

Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon may have had civilised discussions in Edinburgh on 15 May but Alex Salmond stated the obvious when he spoke on election night of the lack of legitimacy of a party of government that holds only one seat in a country where, of the 59 MPs, the separatists now have 56. It is an even larger proportion of nationalists than Charles Stewart Parnell’s party had in Ireland in 1885, which led inexorably to the creation of the Irish Free State.

The Conservative Party remains unionist, though not nearly so unionist as it was five years ago: there are expanding pockets of opinion that suggest many would gladly bid good riddance to the Scots, whose financial demands they regard, with some justice, when one compares them with what is spent in deprived areas of England, as wholly unrealistic. The unionism of those who still believe in the creed is romantic or historical rather than realistic. Cameron needs to be alert to a movement for a second referendum – which the SNP landslide seems to make inevitable – and be sensitive to it.

 

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When William Gladstone was drawing up the home rule bills of 1886 and 1893 for Ireland – which, sadly for the peace of the United Kingdom, were both defeated – he envisaged self-government in almost all respects except defence and foreign policy, because of the strategic realities of the British Isles. Ireland was to have its own revenue-raising powers but would pay an agreed portion to the imperial Treasury in London to cover the costs of defence and representation abroad. The more hard-nosed Tories think that Cameron should offer such a deal to Sturgeon – fiscal autonomy, now, with the power to tax and spend as Scotland desires. Cameron has made it clear he disagrees, having no desire to force Scotland to a point at which the Union might end, and even Sturgeon now talks only of “phased” autonomy.

The key question, though, is that of the lender of last resort. Tories who want such a deal for Scotland want it not least to bring home to Sturgeon and her associates the realities of proper governance. When it comes to borrowing money, they believe that Scotland must guarantee its own debt and not have the Bank of England do it. The note issue in Scotland must be backed by Scottish banks, too, not the English one. One MP I spoke to compared Sturgeon now with Nick Clegg in his honeymoon phase in 2010: “She talks a very good game but when it comes to making hard decisions about spending and borrowing, the public starts to realise there may be limitations, after all.”

It is a common view among Tories that life can only become more difficult for the SNP and they may be right. However, the more aggressive Tories believe that Cameron will simply search for compromise, however costly, rather than force the issue in this way – and that would cause tension between the leadership and English MPs who seek justice for their constituents.

Scotland may want its own defence capability and foreign policy – a desire for sovereignty that would be its democratic right – and therefore may drive for an early second referendum irrespective of what responsibilities Cameron offers to transfer to it. It is likely that once a system of English votes for English laws kicks in and England manifests itself as an even more Conservative state than it appears today, the appetite for Scottish separatism may grow and not merely among the Scots. The new government cannot resist that: Roy Foster, the eminent historian of Ireland, wrote on 8 May that he could not envisage an Easter Rising in Scotland. Nor can one imagine the Black and Tans being sent in to Glasgow to coerce the Scots. The English have to accept, as they found it so hard to do a century ago with the Irish, that the tide of opinion for national self-determination in Scotland has strengthened appreciably since last September and that, with its 56 separatist seats, it has a new democratic legitimacy. There is now as clear a division of political and social values between England and Scotland as there has been since 1707. Unionists may regard separation as a huge mistake but part of being grown-up is being allowed to make your own mistakes.

The European question will have a considerable impact on this. Many in Cameron’s party, regarding a satisfactory renegotiation (or even any renegotiation at all) as highly unlikely, want one sooner than the autumn of 2017 and it seems increasingly possible that they will get their wish. But, when ever the referendum comes, the Scots may be at odds with the English over the outcome. So long as Scotland is part of the United Kingdom it will, whatever new rules Sturgeon proposes, have to abide by the decision of a majority of the kingdom’s citizens. That could even be to come out, because the four million who voted for Ukip are not the only people disenchanted by Europe. Scotland wishes to stay in not least because the EU is an alternative source of funding against the day when the tap that gushes from Whitehall is turned off. One of the great weaknesses of Salmond’s case for independence was that he could not definitively say whether Scotland would remain in the EU after independence, or if it would have to reapply to join. Brussels, which he chose rather tragically to contradict, said there would have to be a new application process. The SNP (assuming that it is re-elected to power in Scotland in next year’s Holyrood elections) could choose to use a UK vote to leave the EU as a trigger for a unilateral declaration of independence. Either way, as things stand, it would be out of the EU.

Cameron, according to his friends, hopes that the tide of intransigence in Europe about a renegotiation will turn now that he is in for five years and now that a referendum is certain. Some in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are not so sure. The line from Brussels and Berlin (the true centre of power in Europe), that it is too destabilising for the organisation to contemplate the reopening of treaties, is not purely rhetorical. As a result of the Greek situation and its possible consequences, the EU has quite enough on its plate already without that. Also, Angela Merkel is sincere when she says that the principle of open borders and free movement of EU citizens around the 28 nations is not negotiable; and that is the main concession Cameron would hope to win in his attempt to persuade the British people to vote for the status quo.

The pressure to bring the vote forward comes not least from Cameron’s friends in the business community, who already view the uncertainty as a brake on investment and want it kept as brief as possible. He has put George Osborne, now also bearing the title of First Secretary of State, in charge of the negotiations, another sign (along with the tenor of the reshuffle, in which friends of George prospered as usual) of the Chancellor’s huge power in the government. Cameron seems to have anointed Osborne as his successor. If he manages any renegotiation at all, let alone a successful one, he will enhance his credentials for the leadership.

Cameron is certainly trying to make it as easy as possible for Eurosceptics to warm to the idea of staying in. Among the reasons given for the appointment of Michael Gove to the Ministry of Justice is that he will drive through a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. Gove is one of the more cerebral members of the cabinet but he may soon wish that, like every other lord chancellor except the unlamented Chris Grayling, he was trained in the law. Repealing the 1998 act is one thing but the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe still requires it to remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, under which cases are justiciable at Strasbourg. To escape that, Britain would have to leave the Council of Europe. Lawyers also ­contend that some rights under the convention have now entered common law and judges would continue to uphold them here whether they were in the Bill of Rights or not. And European legislation and institutions underpin other aspects of our law and political landscape, such as the Good Friday Agreement and the devolution settlements. So, removing Europe’s influence from our legal system may prove easier said than done.

 

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When ever the referendum is held, Cameron must ensure that it is conducted in a way that causes the least division in his party. Harold Wilson, in the 1975 plebiscite, had the right idea: allow all party members and even members of the government and the cabinet the right to campaign on whichever side of the argument they please, on the understanding that they would all accept the final result. Labour had deep divisions by 1975 and it is unlikely that the split over Europe created any new ones; the fall of the government in 1979 cannot be blamed on the gulf between Tony Benn and Roy Jenkins over Europe. If Cameron tried to impose his pro-European views on his rank and file, he would face a big rejection; if he tried to impose it on his government colleagues, he would face resignations and possibly worse. He would be unwise to try when Wilson has set him such a good example.

Like Labour in the 1970s, the Tory party has its factions – and the “better off out” group largely but not exclusively overlaps with those who will be driving other parts of a more traditional Conservative agenda. Many MPs will push this hard, discomfited by Ukip’s 118 second places and 3.9 million votes. It includes more rigorous public spending cuts, to effect a further transfer of resources from the public to the private sector, not least because these Tories feel that Ukip exploited successfully the opposition of many working-class people to those in their communities living on benefits. It also includes changing spending priorities, notably using the overseas aid budget to reverse defence cuts.

Cameron seems to have ruled out another of their demands already, his retaining of Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary in effect putting up two fingers to the clamour to extend selective education. Yet Whittingdale’s appointment will cause those on the right to rejoice, as they (perhaps optimistically) expect him to set about dismantling the BBC – seen by many Tories as a left-wing front organisation. They are cheered, too, that Iain Duncan Smith is remaining to drive through further welfare reforms.

For all that, the government that Cameron has put together is more in his and Osborne’s image than in that of the wider party. Before a reshuffle, most prime ministers weigh up the potential of those consigned to outside the tent to make life unpleasant for those inside. Cameron seems not to operate in that way and his victory seems to have confirmed him in his view that he will throw a bone to the right only when he knows that he can reap a direct benefit from it in the eyes of the electorate – as with Whittingdale and the BBC.

When his honeymoon ends, he may feel differently. We are promised a surge of activity in the first 100 days as he makes the most of being sole proprietor of Her Majesty’s Government. If the Tories really have made a difference by the end of the summer holidays – if they have managed a constitutional settlement acceptable to all reasonable people, and with democratic legitimacy, and if they have brought Merkel to the negotiating table – Cameron will have more than shown his good faith to those who elected him. If not, what promises to be the victory parade at his party conference in October could also usher in a period of more testing realities.

Simon Heffer’s books include “High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” (Windmill)

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition