David Cameron exudes a worrying confidence these days. He strolls through the corridors of the Palace of Westminster with the air of a man already thinking of victory at the next election. His head is tilted slightly skywards, as if already enjoying the sunlit uplands of victory in 2015. But this confidence is misguided, even dangerous, as some of those closest to him are well aware.
They, by contrast, do not look relaxed at all. They look anxious, pained, bundles of nervous energy. Their fear is that the Prime Minister is on the brink of making mistakes that could endanger his premiership: that he is about to sabotage his own reform agenda.
The story of Cameron’s leadership to date has been one of laidback calm interrupted by periods of productive anxiety. As one Tory ruefully puts it, ‘What you have to understand is that the Tory party now only has two modes: panic and complacency.’ Under pressure, Cameron has repeatedly rescued himself and his party — sometimes from near-certain political death. But when all seems well, he relaxes. The momentum that he had gained is lost through inaction. Small difficulties are allowed to mutate into big problems. Sure enough, the seeds are now being sown for the next — and greatest — panic of all.
The Prime Minister is in danger of blowing a once-in-a-premiership chance to change Britain. He seems increasingly to think that he can leave important reforms until his second term. But here’s the catch with that plan — if he does not act now, if he doesn’t show the country what he’s made of, he might not have a second term.
The most alarming example of Cameron’s dangerous complacency is in NHS reform. The Prime Minister personally launched the plans earlier this year, and the legislation easily passed its first and second reading in the House of Commons. But having come so far, he has now ordered a ‘pause’ to the coalition’s reforms and is promising ‘substantial’ changes to them.
What makes Cameron’s decision to back away from the reforms all the more alarming is that he only recently seemed so up for the fight. When in March, the British Medical Association criticised the reforms, he dismissed this as the predictable whining of just another trade union. His aides reassured people that unlike the forest sell-off and several other minor questions, the PM was not for turning on this issue. But less than a month later, the Prime Minister was, in his most emollient tone, launching a ‘listening exercise’ with the aim of appeasing the BMA and other interest groups. The Prime Minister had blinked.
But Cameron’s change of heart on health is not an isolated incident. It is part of a general pattern of Cameron giving up on public service reform. In the eyes of the reformers, there are two villains behind Cameron’s change of pace, Andrew Cooper and the Liberal Democrats.
Cooper is the pollster who has been hired as the Prime Minister’s director of political strategy. His polls are now king in Downing Street and he is the man with the Prime Minister’s ear. Cooper’s numbers are setting the agenda and explain why Cameron started the local election campaign with a speech on immigration and why he will give his first big address on crime shortly. (Oddly enough, before Cooper’s arrival the Cameron operation didn’t do much market research at all.)
But the reformers complain that these polls assume that public opinion can’t be moved. So when new policies are tested, the results show what people feel about them now, not what they might feel once the changes have actually been introduced. Until a situation reaches crisis point, these polls will always favour doing nothing. In short, the data is serving to reinforce government’s inevitable bias towards the status quo.
The polling on health illustrates this point. ‘A political catastrophe’ was Cooper’s three-word verdict on the NHS reforms. But allies of Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, warn that Cooper is not taking into account the price of inaction. If Cameron does nothing, and there is a real crisis in the health service before 2015, that will do more damage than anything to Cameron’s poll rating.
Alongside Cooper in the dock are the Liberal Democrats. In the beginning of the coalition, the junior partners were crucial allies of the reformers. But as their electoral support has crumbled, they have been forced back into their left-wing redoubt. Nick Clegg, who in opposition was prepared to say the unsayable about the NHS, is now taking his cue from the 80-year-old Shirley Williams, who has emerged as the champion of the increasingly assertive left-wing of the Liberal Democrats.
The sight of the British government cowering in front of the grand old woman of Liberal Democrat politics would be rather funny if it was not so serious. Her mission, it seems, is to use this moment of government weakness to undo not just Lansley’s proposed reforms but to return the NHS to the state it was in when she sat in Wilson and Callaghan’s cabinets.
The Lib Dems are currently talking about no company being able to profit from NHS work, thereby purging commercial medicine companies from the vast healthcare sector. But the fall in waiting lists under Labour can be traced to the private clinics which were lured in to help with the NHS workload. Without them, and without competition in the NHS, waiting lists will rocket and standards will fall.
What makes the wrangling on health all the more peculiar is that the Liberal Democrats have become more powerful by losing votes at the local elections while the Tories gained them. But it was precisely this outcome which led Cameron to believe that his party was on course for victory. George Osborne’s argument that the government should concentrate on the economy, education and welfare reform and treat the rest as detail seems superficially appealing now that there is — albeit limited — electoral justification for it.
For many in Cameron’s circle, the strategy is simple: keep the coalition together by whatever means necessary and we’ll win outright in 2015 and do what we want afterwards. This is the great gamble — that giving up on reform now will lead to a quiet life, rather than create another crisis primed to explode just before election time. It is the complacency before the inevitable panic. For instance, the free schools policies will not produce enough new schools to cope with a booming population unless the bureaucratic obstacles to setting them up are removed or schools are allowed to make a profit. In this case, as in so many others, ducking out of a fight now risks the policy failing before the next election.
One Lib Dem involved in the negotiations over the health reforms says that the Tories are ‘mortally afraid of a row over the NHS with us on one side and them on the other’. The Cameroons fear that any conflict may bring back the old charge that ‘you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS’. Indeed, Downing Street is so keen to avoid this battle that — I understand — Tory supporters of the reform plans have been asked not to defend them to journalists or in public. It may well be the first time that No. 10 has tried to stop people from speaking up for the government’s own legislation.
The Lib Dems are amazed at the Tories’ timidity, and joking that it is proving irritatingly difficult to attack them on health from the left. ‘We could probably propose going right back to Bevan’s 1948 settlement, and they wouldn’t dare object,’ chuckles one. Such is their influence that an increasing number of reform-minded Tories are convinced that it would be best to bin the whole bill — rather than take such
a great leap backwards.
The new intake of Tories MP, who are as right-wing as they are ambitious, are deeply worried that the coalition, with its inevitable compromises between two different political traditions, could end up discrediting the case for the kind of changes they want to see. They fret that what is happening with health now is a more extreme version of what happened with tuition fees last autumn, when a planned centre-right set of changes was tweaked and tweaked until they were acceptable to the Liberal Democrats but lost their coherence.
In the case of tuition fees, this led to a situation where no one is happy with the outcome: Britain’s best universities still don’t feel they have the resources they need to compete globally and are still facing government interference in their own affairs; students are finding themselves being charged £9,000 not just by Oxbridge but by the University of Central Lancashire; and the Treasury is having to find more money to provide the larger-than-expected loans that undergraduates will have to take out to pay their way. To cap it all, this experience has made it harder for any future Tory government to argue that the right response to this is to get the state out of the way.
It is not just in health that the Prime Minister is retreating from radicalism. Back in February, he pledged to end the state monopoly on providing public services. He promised that from now on the provision of public services would be ‘open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public service ethos’.
But since Cameron committed to this massive change, little has happened. The white paper paving the way for it is stuck in the U-bend of the coalition. One civil servant working on it says that ‘it is becoming less radical by the day’.
Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s guru and Downing Street’s reformer-in-chief, is increasingly frustrated by this backsliding. One Whitehall ally worries that he could soon walk away in frustration if all these policies carry on being delayed and diluted. Hilton’s problem is that the more his colleagues think that the party is going to win the next election, the more they will put off reform. Already the phrase ‘we’ll do that in the second term’ is beginning to litter the conversation of an increasing number of ministers and advisers. The fierce urgency of now has been replaced by the politics of mañana, mañana.
This is why Cameron now faces a moment of decision. He can rein back his reforms and hope to win a second term on the economy and Labour’s failures. Or he can quicken the pace so that the electorate can see the difference that these changes have made before the next election. Sure, sections of the Liberal Democrats would be uneasy with this, but they would be unlikely to risk an election by bringing the government down. To those Conservatives who caution against taking too many risks, the reply should be that the biggest risk of all is Cameron placing himself at the mercy of events, as he has done too many times before.
And if the Prime Minister needs to stiffen his resolve, he should remember the last Tory Prime Minister who had a bold, reforming agenda but gave up halfway. Ted Heath was never forgiven for his U-turn and was voted out. If Cameron gives up now, by succumbing to his own innate caution, the voters will be no more merciful. The election may be in 2015, but the battle is being fought now,
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 28, 2011