Never has a government been better at exasperating its own supporters; rarely has a government been so politically inept.
The Tories have formidable advantages. Even in the miseries of an economic crisis, they are only seven points behind in the polls and are almost holding on to their general election percentage. If Margaret Thatcher had been doing this well in mid-parliament, she would have wondered what she was doing wrong. Ed Miliband lacks Michael Foot’s eloquence, Neil Kinnock’s occasional flashes of electability and David Miliband’s political weight. Ed Balls combines intellectual incoherence with the charm of a pit bull terrier. Apropos charm, Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman overflow with warmth, generosity of spirit and appeal to the aspirational classes.
So David Cameron is lucky in his principal opponents: even luckier in his failure to win outright in 2010. Suppose he had gained a majority of, say, 21, as John Major did in 1992. David Davis, Mark Reckless, Douglas Cars-well and others would be in permanent session, deciding how to re-enact the crucifixion of Mr Major. The Liberals, under their de facto leader Vince Cable, an outstanding opposition politician, would be opposing every cut. Even if Clogg and Milipede minor were grumbling about being overshadowed, that would avail the Tories naught. They would be in third place, with a constant leadership crisis and no apparent hope of -recovery.
In view of the PM’s good fortune, wise Tories could have grounds for wary, covert complacency — if only the leadership would exploit its opportunities. In Mrs Thatcher’s worst travails, she retained one advantage. Millions of middle-class voters felt that she was on their side: that she understood them. Few people feel that about David Cameron. He has won respect but little affection, even in his own party. Nor does he try to elicit it. Whatever one’s views about homosexual marriage, the timing is abominable. Throughout the UK, tens of millions of people are worried, about the economy, the state of the country: their own prospects, their children’s prospects, the world’s prospects. You name it, they are worried about it. How many of those anxieties will be assuaged by the thought that homosexuals might be able to call themselves married?
There is a difficulty. David Cameron takes his religion for granted. He does not seem to realise that other people take their religion seriously. The PM has compared his faith to the reception of a local radio station in the Chilterns: it comes and goes. His is a vaguely pantheistic, sherry-with-the-vicar sort of Anglicanism — less of a religion than an inoculation against religion. He is not alone in that, but even if England is in many ways a post-religious society, the concept of marriage evokes widespread reverence. To many natural Tories, it seems irreverent that a Conservative prime minister should feel entitled to redefine marriage. That earlier Oxfordshire Tory, Lord Falkland, said that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change: the wisest of Tory maxims, which Mr Cameron ought to have heeded.
Of itself, homosexual marriage will not have much electoral influence, but it could confirm two related, widespread and negative impressions. The first is that David Cameron and those around him, rich enough to be insulated against ordinary people’s concerns, feel entitled to indulge in metropolitan fads — when they should be sorting out the economy. The second is that Tory England is losing the culture wars: that Cameronism is only a meniscus on top of an increasingly alien public culture. The Blairites, who did not like England, tried to sunder it from its history and turn it into another country. This Prime Minister is not Tory enough to wish to reclaim history: to mobilise the real, deep-down England and throw off the Blairite infections.
That is not true, yet I meet an increasing number of thoughtful people who believe it. This is the PM’s fault. It is his political failure. David Cameron is good at governing. Look at the events of the last few days. He was commanding and authoritative: just what a prime minister ought to be. He is also good at politics, when he tries. The party conference speech, the speech on Europe: both outstanding. He is easily the strongest figure in the Commons.
He does not try anything like often enough. Where politics is concerned, this is an essay-crisis PM. When he has to, he will sport his oak, brew a pot of strong coffee, address his desk, and solve everything by dawn. But why not try to hit the crisis with a pre-emptive strike? There is too much of George Bush senior. He was good at governing but regarded politics as a regrettable necessity. Bill Clinton did not make that mistake. Because of the PM’s political lassitude, a wholly erroneous impression has gained credence. A lot of people think that this is a weak government, in the grip of spin. That is the opposite of the truth. On the economy, this government has been strong. Anyone who thinks that Mr Cameron is weak on Europe should talk to some Europeans. On welfare and health, Mr Cameron and his ministers have tackled problems which Margaret Thatcher sidestepped.
Above all, there is education, equally neglected under Mrs Thatcher. For decades, there has been a Gramsci-ite long march through British education, with the aim of turning schools into socialist seminaries. As a result, large numbers of school-leavers are unemployable. Millions of middle-class parents are terrified that their children, condemned to a bog-standard comprehensive, will emerge semi-literate and proletarianised. Now, there is hope. Michael Gove is fighting the education culture war, and winning it. That is why the left hates him. So why is hardly anyone else aware of his successes?
That brings us to spin: what spin? This government’s entire propaganda endeavours since 2010 are not worth ten minutes of Bernard Ingham in his prime. In No. 10, Mr Cameron has assembled an outstanding team of policy advisers. Since the departure of that master of uncreative destruction, Steve Hilton, it has been the best in British political history. Yet its members are kept behind the arras and forbidden to enhance the government’s political firepower. The Tory party chairman, young Grant Shapps, is a promising fellow, but he does not have the weight to be Cecil Parkinson in the run-up to the 1983 election, Chris Patten before 1992 or Michael Heseltine in the mid-1990s. David Cameron urgently needs a senior political figure to help with the essays. He also ought to communicate better before the crises arise.
Mr Cameron takes himself for granted, as well as his religion. He knows who he is and what he believes. It is easy to summarise: ‘improving the condition of Britain’. He needs to explain that: to take the people of Britain into his confidence; to assuage his supporters’ exasperation. There is still enough time, but he ought to get on with it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 9 February 2013