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The hollow centre of British politics

The Tory party is losing faith in David Cameron. The coalition seems brittle and without purpose. And Labour has yet to offer a coherent alternative. Have our politicians stopped speaking to the voters in a language they understand?

Conservatives who mistrust David Cameron once found evidence of a treasonous tendency in his boast, issued during the leadership campaign of 2005, to be the “heir to Blair”. Surveying the Prime Minister’s record so far, many Tory MPs now worry that he will be remembered by history as something worse – a postscript to Gordon Brown.

In character and style, the current Prime Minister could hardly be more different from his predecessor. Cameron parades with catwalk fluency in the robes of office that seemed to chafe every inch of Brown’s body. But both men entered Downing Street with flawed mandates. The last Labour prime minister was unelected; the present Conservative one has a parliamentary majority borrowed from Liberal Democrat MPs. Those structural weaknesses exposed another failure the two men share. Each had a sense of irrevocable entitlement to the top job shared only by his innermost clique and unmatched by clarity of ambition for the country. Halfway through the parliamentary term, the best summary of Cameron’s gov­erning purpose remains janitorial – to clear up a fiscal mess left behind by the last administration. And even that task, as many Tory MPs note with despair, is going unfulfilled. The pace of deficit reduction is slowing, the national debt rising.

That failure has left the central apparatus of Cameron’s government looking brittle, its purpose obscure. The competition to shape an agenda for rescuing Britain from economic stagnation is being conducted elsewhere. On the right, Tory purists feel that coalition has trapped them in a purgatory of high taxes and over-regulation, a bleached facsimile of Brown­ism. On the left, Labour toys with quasi-utopian visions of capitalism remade from top to bottom. The centre is hollow.

The groans of dissent on the Tory back benches ominously echo the complaints that Labour MPs used to level against Brown. Cam­eron lacks courage, it is said. Voters do not identity with him. Last month, Tim Yeo, a former Conservative minister, described the Prime Minister’s heart as “an organ that remains impenetrable to most Britons”.

Measures to spur the economy into life are belittled as a simulation of government to mask the absence of strategy. George Osborne’s last Budget has been written off as a self-defeating display of misfiring political pyrotechnics. The Chancellor, once feted as a strategic mastermind, is now more usually dismissed as a blinkered tactician. “Orthodox Brown” is one formerly loyal Tory MP’s dismissive verdict on Osborne’s handling of the economy.

Cameron is said to have returned from the summer break determined to dazzle with the scale of his ambition. An economic development bill is being drafted with measures aimed to jump-start the economy: a state bank (previously advocated by Labour) to provide investment finance where the private sector is being stingy; changes in planning to provoke house-building; relaxations to employment law to encourage cautious businesses to take on staff.

The government has been reshuffled, bringing an infusion of new blood to junior ministerial ranks. The highest offices of state stay in familiar hands. The thrust of policy is unchanged.

It is enough to escape the charge of total paralysis but not sufficient to convince anyone that the initiative has been seized. The Conservative leader is still cut off from the bulk of his party by deep differences in the analysis of what is holding them back from mass appeal.

Downing Street remains persuaded that the party’s problems stem from incomplete “modernisation”, which is blamed on obstruction by a reactionary right wing. Many Tory MPs think the whole Cameroon project was misdirected and that it corrupted the party’s message with liberal, metropolitan preoccupations, chasing the fashionable New Labour zeitgeist of the late 1990s – too much emphasis on gay rights, overseas aid and the environment, not enough on crime, immigration and Europe.

Old fantasies

Cameron’s Tory critics deny that they occupy a right-wing fringe. They prefer to think of themselves as “mainstream Conservatives”, a reclassification promoted by Tim Montgomerie, editor of the powerful ConservativeHome website. A central contention of the Mainstreamers is that Cameron’s metro-elitism has prevented the Tories from recruiting those working- and lower-middle-class voters who once flockedto Margaret Thatcher’s banner but now see the Tories as a rich men’s club.

That assertion gets right up the noses of the Continuity Modernisers. The Cameroons resent being told that they neglect their striving blue-collar constituency. These are the voters, say Downing Street cheerleaders, who respond best to the government’s assault on a “something-for-nothing” benefits culture. Updating party attitudes on social mores – accepting, for instance, that gay couples have equal marriage rights – is, in the words of one senior Cameron aide, “basic political hygiene: things you do because they are right”. That agenda can coexist happily with tough rhetoric on immigration and crime. “They [the right] accuse us of being obsessed with the things that actually they are obsessed with.” Another No 10 aide goes further. The test of a successful next phase of modernisation should be “that it still annoys Tim”.

Then there are the Postmodernisers, often young Tory MPs from the 2010 parliamentary intake, who are socially liberal but ferociously conservative on the economy, urging tax cuts, accelerated spending cuts and an assault on what they see as the bureaucratic barriers to growth. Many of them see Cameron as too effete to deliver the state-slashing vigour that they crave.

Cameron’s advancement of right-wingers and prominent Eurosceptics in the reshuffle, putting a deeper blue gloss on the government, will not persuade the party that the leader has been rehabilitated ideologically.

One point of agreement among all Tory factions is that the main obstacle to their ambitions is the need to share power with Liberal Democrats. That is a reassurance to Nick Clegg, whose hopes of avoiding electoral annihilation rest largely on a claim to have thwarted Tory excesses. The Lib Dems must serve, as one Clegg adviser puts it, as “the leash on the Conservative dog”. Tory backbenchers reinforce that message by straining and growling.

The Lib Dem leader aims to position his party in what he calls “the sweet spot” of British politics – more realistic about austerity than Labour, yet more compassionate in its implementation than the Tories. At one level, this is another iteration of Blair’s “third way” navigation between market economic rigour historically associated with the right and ambitions for social justice to which the left lays proprietorial claim. That Clegg has received next to no credit for this balancing act is partly a function of his gear-crunchingly awkward transition from pious opposition to power. It might also reflect the obsolescence of that whole idiom of political positioning.

The Lib Dems once hoped to get credit for signing up to coalition as a national economic rescue mission. That looks implausible with the economy plainly unrescued. So Clegg has shifted his emphasis to present the Lib Dems as guarantors of a fairer allocation of pain. He signalled the start of the political season with a call for a one-off tax on the accrued wealth of rich individuals. The idea, recalling the Lib Dems’ previous calls for a “mansion tax” on posh real estate, contains the tacit recognition that the coalition’s deficit reduction plans are weighing disproportionately on the shoulders of lower- and middle-income households, something ministers have always denied. It is also an affront to backbench Tories, who think the government should not be spraying out messages of hostility to wealthy types who, they warn, will flee Exchequer raids and take their enterprising spirit overseas.

Downing Street is prepared to indulge Clegg’s egalitarian whimsy (but not to implement the actual policy) on the understanding that the Lib Dem leader needs to shore up his position in his party. Cameron knows one of the greatest threats to the stability of his government is the prospect that the Lib Dems, weary of being despised and desperate to shed the taint of slavish obedience to their senior coalition partners, will be seized by regicidal panic. There is no sign yet of a concerted plot against Clegg, but the unlikelihood of his leading the party into the next election is a routine topic of debate in the party.

Ed Miliband also hopes that the leadership of the Lib Dems won’t change hands for another couple of years, albeit for very different reasons to Cameron. Recent opinion polls have indicated that the Lib Dems might claw back a few points, entirely at Labour’s expense, if they rallied behind Vince Cable, the business secretary who has concealed neither his visceral distaste for intimacy with Conservatives nor his appetite for one day succeeding Clegg.

Search for the sweet spot

The repatriation of left-leaning protest voters to Labour provoked by Clegg’s partnership with the Tories is the main factor boosting the opposition’s opinion poll ratings. That plumps the cushion of Labour’s core vote but doesn’t indicate any progress in reaching out to those who backed Cameron in 2010 or the large slice of the electorate – one in three – that doesn’t bother voting at all.

The abstainers are as crucial to Miliband’s strategy as prospective swingers away from the Tories. The Labour leader is convinced that tectonic plates are shifting beneath the ground of British politics. He hopes to tap into a public appetite for change on a scale much grander than anything so far seen in the transition from New Labour to coalition government. The financial crisis, in Miliband’s analysis, marks the end of an epoch, characterised by government subordination to market forces and unconscionable tolerance of inequality. His proposed antidote is a transfusion of moral responsibility to the heart of British capitalism. The problem, as his critics never tire of pointing out, is the absence of a substantial mechanism for making it happen.

A growing anxiety in Labour ranks is that Miliband has decided that the centre of politics is moving in his direction not because there is much evidence to support the thesis but because believing it spares him the torment of imposing divisive fiscal truths on his party. The Labour leadership has crept towards public recognition that the next government will have to implement budget cuts hardly less severe than the ones scheduled by Osborne. Miliband goes some way to confronting that challenge in an interview with the NS (page 22) but remains cagey about the details of how Labour would manage long-term austerity differently.

His allies say such caution is justified by the reasonable expectation that the coalition will accrue sufficient blame for economic mismanagement and tear itself apart spectacularly enough to distract voters from the vagueness of Labour’s counter-offer. But many in the party worry that even a modest upturn in the economy and a semblance of discipline on the government benches will expose the softness of Labour’s lead. “The question people should be asking is why we aren’t 20 points ahead at this stage,” says a senior shadow cabinet member.

A parallel concern is how plausible it is for Miliband to present himself as the face of “real change” in the economy when he and Ed Balls can be depicted as disciples of Brown. The view in Downing Street is that the Labour leadership has not yet disentangled itself from the past enough to appeal to voters as rightful stewards of the nation’s future.

Neither Cameron nor Miliband is close to amassing a broad constituency of voters, drawn from across traditional party lines, who will see them as the natural champion of the collective national interest. The assembly of an electoral coalition equivalent to the one that sustained Tony Blair through three elections is a distant fantasy. The great unanswered question of British politics is whether a repeat of that trick is a plausible ambition for any party.

The New Labour formula was for the central government to requisition the proceeds of economic growth and deploy them in an ever-expanding social intervention. That approach is unavailable in a recession. A Treasury that wants to balance the Budget cannot buy political allegiance from sections of society without simultaneously robbing other constituencies. No one is surprised that the infliction of pain through the withdrawal of public services is making the incumbent government unpopular. No politician has yet found a way to sound simultaneously optimistic and candid about the prospect of lean times stretching beyond the next election.

Cameron’s “heir to Blair” self-image was conceived in the boom; it was buried in the bust. It is hard now not to feel that his government occupies an ideological hiatus – a period of technocratic bumbling through the dust and ash thrown up by the volcanic eruption of the financial crisis. In that cloud, it is difficult to discern where the centre ground lies, or even to what extent the goal of occupying that terrain – the canonical pursuit of political strategists for a generation – still holds the promise of victory.

In the next few weeks Cameron, Miliband and Clegg will each address their parties’ annual conferences. The task, as ever, is to deploy language that will satisfy the tribal impulses of the party faithful while also reaching over their heads to engage the vast majority of voters who take no interest in the minutiae of daily Westminster combat. Unlike the activists in the conference hall, the general public does not base its judgements on adherence to or deviation from ancient standards of ideological purity.

Rarely has the gap between those two audiences seemed wider. The vacancy for a candidate who can bridge it is unfilled and while the party machines sustain their frenetic whirr of activity, that noise does not promise much to a country alarmed by the spectre of economic decline. It is not so much a call to arms as the rattle of rusty springs uncoiling and the creaking of levers being pulled to no effect in the hollow centre of British politics.

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

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special