This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics
The reality of coalition government lies at the root of all that defines David Cameron’s premiership. It’s easy to forget that the prime minister is locked in an unhappy marriage. Prime ministers are usually judged as leaders of their own party, on how they keep the different wings of their church together through thick and thin. But Cameron is handcuffed to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and if he’s frustrated, it’s because his own party underestimates this ugly and inconvenient truth.
The PM is not a right winger but he is most definitely of the right. His instincts have always been eurosceptic, tough on law and order, economically dry and pro-free trade. Left to lead the country with a pure Conservative majority, Cameron would have taken different roads at some junctions in the last two-and-a-half years – though not always.
I remember his last interview with me in my days as the Sun’s political editor. In it, he promised his first act on day one of a Tory government would be to tear up the Human Rights Act. I believed him. Neither of us knew then, however, that he would shortly be leading a coalition whose sole task was to keep Britain’s economy alive in the operating theatre.
Like everyone else, we were imagining life in a conventional administration with the freedom to govern, the freedom to choose. But virtually everywhere the PM looks, he feels a need to compromise if the coalition government is to survive.
Many Tories – MPs as well as supporters – can’t understand why the PM doesn’t trample over Clegg’s demands for a real share of power. After all, Clegg would be mad to pull the coalition down and force a snap general election. The Lib Dems would be annihilated, and he would be given his marching orders as an MP. Cameron, it seems, is focused on what he believes is a bigger objective – to steady the economy and rid the UK of the deficit.
He cannot deliver stability in a world of unprecedented financial turmoil without his Lib Dem partners on board for the big decisions. Plunging the UK into an election mid-term, though, would throw what stability there is into oblivion.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has enjoyed a month’s worth of headlines, thanks to the Olympics. Some he’s stoked, notably an Evening Standard interview in which he explicitly called on the PM and Chancellor George Osborne to be more bullish on the growth strategy. And is the PM worried he will face a leadership challenge? No. Johnson would have to quit as mayor, find a safe seat and build a campaign to unseat the premier. It’s very hard indeed to see this sequence of events happening in the real world.
Cameron, his old Etonian school friend, is well aware of Johnson’s ambition. But he doesn’t feel threatened by it. One figure who spends a considerable amount of time with the PM scoffs: “It’s an absurd thought. Boris is the only conceivable person who could threaten David as leader of the party – and he isn’t even an MP.
“The PM has no insecurity about that whatsoever. He isn’t thinking, ‘Oh my God, what’s Boris up to?’ It just isn’t his style.”
Recent polls show ‘BoJo’ is the most popular choice to succeed Cameron, but none say he would be a better choice as PM today.
There will, of course, continue to be rumblings from a number of Tory MPs about the PM – and he’s quite prepared for that. It’s a long way indeed, however, from anyone serious lining themselves up as a credible alternative between now and 2015.
Cameron may not be the darling of the Conservative Party, but he recognises he can’t be loved by all as long as he is keeping a coalition alive. He spends more time than previous leaders seeing backbenchers, and very definitely is the darling of the 301 group, those fiercely Cameron MPs who believe their second term depends on him sticking to the progressive agenda, set out pre-2010, which helped them win their Midlands and northern seats.
Yet change is in the air. The PM knows more staff must be hired to replace wise heads in Number 10 who once formed a brains trust that is now severely depleted. The dwindling band around Cameron is a worry, whatever anyone in No 10 says.
Who’s the chief of staff figure, now that Ed Llewellyn is tied up – understandably – with the enormous issues of global security and eurozone collapse? Who knows the premier inside out and can read his instincts, anticipate his reflexes, and shape ministers’ messages to the Cameron narrative?
The happy news that Gabby Bertin, the PM’s press secretary, is pregnant is bittersweet. She will leave government for maternity leave in December and it’s not clear who will, or can, fill her shoes. Her closeness to the Camerons stems from years on the inside. She has provided a trusted, vital link between lobby correspondents and editors to the PM for a very long time.
New figures – yet to start their jobs – will focus on fresh policies on a very narrow band of subjects that will please voters and Tory MPs, but they simply won’t know Cameron as well as older hands like Bertin, James O’Shaughnessy and Steve Hilton, all of whom are pursuing new avenues.
Law and order, education, welfare reform and immigration will be pretty much the main focus of the PM’s attention – in addition to growth. And why not? Polling shows voters are in favour of greater freedom for parents to choose in education. Labour’s awkward compromise in this area makes it look like they can’t decide, while Labour voters especially applaud the Tory approach to a get tough policy on welfare – they are often the people who see abuse of the system at first hand, and for them, fairness is about stamping on scroungers and shirkers.
These will be the areas targeted at the Tory Conference this year in Birmingham. In doing so, Cameron will appeal to both the traditional wing of his parliamentary party and the country at large, although some are bound to interpret this approach as a lurch to the right, or more red meat for the PM’s unruly backbenchers.
There looms a big test for Cameron as he negotiates Britain’s EU membership fees for the next seven years. Without doubt, eurosceptics in his party will use the talks as a platform to test his credentials and commitment to true blue Tory values. At the same time, there’s the battle over boundary changes. Cameron has no intention of backing down, and will fight hard to ensure the constituencies are redrawn in Conservative favour.
Those who wonder what makes Cameron tick should look to the speech he made to supporters at the party’s summer ball, now a fading memory. It captured his approach perfectly. Off the cuff, he talked passionately about the “fire in his belly” to put fear into the hearts of Labour and of those who write off Great Britain. He championed the policies he’s already delivered, which are almost always forgotten in today’s media frenzy, and stood squarely behind his achievements.
There was even a stout defence of his commitment to UK overseas aid, in which he told how it had saved the lives of three million children. He reminded supporters of his gamble to free Libyans from the clutches of Colonel Gaddafi, and listed the 10 countries to which he’s led trade delegations since May 2010. Hitting his stride, Cameron romped through trade and export figures and hailed UK exports of vodka to Poland and cheese to France. The memory of it, sadly, has been stained by the coalition government, which prevents these achievements being spoken about.
There are real difficulties in delivering a clear narrative, a crystal-clear story that spells out precisely what Cameron stands for, and the country he wants to see. Edges get blurred because there are policy contradictions, and the heart of the Conservative high command is truly angry at its Lib Dem counterparts and doubting their motives.
Point in question, Lib Dem leaks of Osborne’s Budget turned a poor job into a horror story, all of which makes it difficult to find agreement, beyond deficit reduction, on the major issues of the day.
Cameron isn’t the laid-back old Etonian many believe him to be. He puts in the hours, but he’s not a worrier; his nails are not bitten to the core like those of one notable predecessor. Close staff remind us to cast our minds back to the day in 2005 when Cameron snatched the Tory crown from David Davis at the point of coronation. Remind yourselves that he’s led his party for seven years, and that there’s no realistic threat to that reign in sight. Ed Miliband is only 10 points ahead, when Tony Blair was 30 points ahead at the same point in his first term.
There isn’t a better way to sum up the PM’s state of mind as we head into conference season than to recall his own words at his summer party: “And the message from the people of this country has never been clearer: ‘Do what’s decent – even if it’s difficult. Do the right thing – even if it puts you on the wrong side of the opinion polls’.
“They know that we’re on an emergency rescue mission of this country. They want us to do whatever it takes.
“And I have pledged to do just that.”
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications