At 9 p.m. on the night before Tony Blair became Prime Minister, he was lying alone on his bed staring at the ceiling. He didn’t want to join his family, watching television, but was eventually dragged down for the News at Ten. ‘No,’ he said, when he heard its exit poll. ‘I accept that we’re going to win, but a landslide? It’s ridiculous.’ This anecdote, recounted in his wife’s autobiography, dramatises what those around David Cameron consider Blair’s worst mistake: a failure to prepare (in Labour’s case, for the sheer scale of victory). It is an error they are determined not to repeat.
Not that Mr Cameron expects a landslide. And he, too, has a near-superstitious aversion to the merest whiff of triumphalism. The electorate, he says, will rightly punish anyone who takes them for granted. But the Tory leader has been persuaded that a greater arrogance is to seek power and not to prepare for it. After all: every recent opinion poll suggests that the Conservatives are on course for (at the very least) a decent working majority in the Commons. So already, work has started on what would be the Cameron government’s first Queen’s Speech.
The general trajectory is already fairly clear. A post-Brown Conservative government would be explicitly pro-family and aim to reduce the welfare rolls. It would take a more ‘holistic’ approach to poverty, insisting that progressive ends are best achieved by conservative means. More power would be transferred to local communities — notably by the election of local police chiefs. When possible, taxes would be cut. This is the fairly familiar tune, piped out routinely in Cameroon speeches.
The question is: how, and in what order? My conversations with the key players in the preparation strategy suggest unambiguously that schools reform and an overhaul of the welfare system will be the priorities — the hope being that both undertakings will have yielded palpable interim results which will help Mr Cameron secure a second term. The aim is to launch a new breed of boutique state schools competing for pupils (a policy which, as I wrote in February, is heavily influenced by the Swedish education revolution).
An Implementation Unit has been working on Mr Cameron’s first moves. Like MI6, the party will admit it exists but will not discuss it lest it appears they are ‘measuring the curtains’ in Number 10. This is a phrase repeated often by those around Mr Cameron, paranoid that preparedness might be misrepresented as complacency. The unit is led by Nicholas Boles, currently blooding himself as Boris Johnson’s interim chief of staff, and Francis Maude, former party chairman.
The team, I can disclose, has very discreetly achieved a high degree of preparedness — much more than any senior Tory would admit in public. A team of former senior civil servants has been assembled, and are being assigned to ‘mentor’ each shadow Cabinet member. In 1995, Mr Blair sent his team to Templeton College, Oxford, for weekend government seminars. Mr Cameron wants personalised, one-to-one tuition so his shadow Cabinet can start planning now.
Encouragingly, the first task is to weed out any scheme likely to cost extra money. ‘George Osborne is refusing every single request made of him,’ moans one shadow Cabinet member. ‘He’s not making himself very popular.’ But Mr Osborne fears he will inherit a 1979 situation, where the public finances have been vandalised by Mr Brown. It will be quite the reverse to the golden legacy which Mr Brown inherited in 1997 — what John Major bleakly calls in his memoirs the Tories’ ‘voteless recovery’.
If the Prime Minister believes he will lose the next election, he is more than capable of adopting a ‘scorched earth’ policy by running up debt for pet projects today, knowing the bill will be paid by a Conservative administration tomorrow: that, as one senior Tory notes wryly, is ‘one “long-term decision” Gordon would love to take’. Sir John left a bottle of champagne in Number 10 for the Blairs. Mr Brown will leave £710 billion of borrowing and the toxic waste of Northern Rock.
Several reforms, however, would be enacted immediately and cheaply. An annual limit would be immediately placed on immigration. If by the next election no terrorist suspect had been detained for more than 28 days, then Mr Cameron would probably repeal the 42-day law. Perhaps the honours could be performed by a rehabilitated junior Home Office minister named David Davis.
Michael Gove’s school reform policy would be at one and the same time the most politically exciting and (in terms of bureaucratic activity) least demanding act of a Cameron government. It simply promises to grant funding of the national average — by then about £6,000 per pupil — to any new schools that are set up. When enacted in Sweden, the reform was so successful after just four years that it was irreversible. The same prize awaits Mr Cameron.
But this depends on prompt and muscular legislation. Only when it is passed will the new free school schemes start looking for prospective locations and pupils. This will be a test of Mr Cameron’s belief in ‘social responsibility’ and the ‘post-bureaucratic’ state. He must legislate quickly, and then hope that civic society responds with vigour.
Welfare reform would be very different: draining time, resources, political capital and patience. It is much the most ambitious mission Mr Cameron has set himself as it entails not reform, but wholesale regime change. The Department of Work and Pensions has 5.1 million dependents — more than the entire population of Bosnia, Ireland, Norway or Latvia. Sir Leigh Lewis, its permanent secretary, is fond of observing that his budget exceeds the economic output of Portugal. It is not so much a department as an empire, with one in seven working-age Britons as its subjects.
Forcing the sun to set on this empire is a task which Mr Blair abandoned early in his premiership, having promised that, like Nixon in China, only he could accomplish the task. Frank Field, the former welfare minister initially tasked by Blair to ‘think the unthinkable’, still bears the scars of that loss of nerve — not to mention the millions who have continued to suffer the consequences of living in a Broken Society.
Yet as work and pensions secretary, Chris Grayling believes he would make more progress in his first term than Labour has made in 11 years by having welfare rolls run by Australian-style welfare-to-work companies which would be paid by results. Such ambition may seem almost risible. Reaching the £3 billion savings target would involve reducing welfare recipients by 600,000 in the first term. This means sending a chunk of humanity equivalent to the entire population of Bristol, Leeds or Manchester back into the mainstream economy. It would take at least a year to draw up the contracts, and six months to award them.
So it would be at least 18 months in to a Cameron government before the DWP’s subjects were handed over to new, more stringent masters — and that is assuming that everything went to plan. Oddly enough, the grounds for Tory optimism lie in what the Labour government has recently, if very belatedly, achieved under welfare privatisation introduced by the Blairites. Benefit dependency in both Glasgow and Liverpool has shrunk from a third to a quarter of each city’s working-age population.
Whisper it, but Mr Cameron will be accelerating a successful (though 11th hour) Labour trend — and preparing to claim all the credit.
Tory plans for the National Health Service are of a very different and much less dynamic nature. Andrew Lansley has been told that his reform — granting independence to the NHS bureaucratic elite — would be one of the first acts passed by a Cameron government. This would allow the Conservatives to attack Mr Brown from the left, saying they would not bother the NHS with irksome demands for rationalisation.
The idea is that this will enable the Tories to claim — as Mr Cameron did on Tuesday — that they are ‘the party of the NHS’ (he could easily have added the word ‘bureaucracy’). But there are only so many battles a government can fight in its first term. That is why Mr Cameron’s first Queen’s Speech will pick just two battlegrounds: education and welfare, with the Gove–Grayling axis at the heart of the action. But it will be hard to keep the NHS out of the headlines. There is no surer recipe for trouble than to give a Soviet-scale bureaucracy even greater independence.
Another lesson that Mr Cameron has learned from Mr Blair is that his government, in ways predictable and unpredictable, is likely to be overshadowed by foreign policy, as Mr Blair’s second term was. One shadow Cabinet member — echoing Clarissa Eden’s famous remark about the Suez Canal — has warned him that Afghanistan will ‘flow through 10 Downing Street like a river’. So, too, may Iran also test the resolve of a new American president, risking a fresh conflagration which would — at the very least — absorb the time and test the moral fibre of Prime Minister Cameron.
Then, Europe. Already some senior shadow Cabinet members are expressing hopes that the Lisbon Treaty argument will remain open long enough for a Conservative government to be elected and renegotiate Britain’s entire membership. Mr Cameron’s wish is for Europe just to go away — but it will not be granted. His first Education Act, for example, will be sent straight to Strasbourg as the manifesto pledge to scrap independent tribunals for school expulsions clearly contradicts the right to a fair trial enshrined in Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The argument has started already. Eurosceptics argue that if Mr Cameron is to govern freely, he must engage with the European question. Yet I am told the Implementation Unit is working to discourage any such confrontation. ‘The ex-civil servants are already saying, “You can take on the EU, but realise it will dominate your first year,”’ complains one party aide.
This is the problem foreshadowed by Mr Cameron’s preparations — few of his team relish the prospect of advice from civil servants, retired or otherwise. ‘Maude’s team haven’t been near me yet. They’re not brave enough,’ one senior shadow Cabinet member told me. Mr Maude argues that the mandarins are not intrinsically bad news, and just need clear direction which a Cameron government will provide. It is a noticeable contrast from Blairites like Alan Milburn who argue that the only way of wresting power from the government is to cut Whitehall’s head count by a quarter.
As the multilayered failure of Mr Brown’s policies become clearer, so does the need for a radically different Tory mission. And while one is being quietly assembled behind the scenes, Mr Cameron remains cautious about selling it as such. ‘Radicalism in private, reassurance in public’ is a mantra one often hears. And why change tone or take risks, it is argued, when the Tories are nursing a 22-point poll lead? This is why he will not discuss the work going on below the radar, no matter how detailed it actually is.
The ghost haunting Mr Cameron is the same that had Mr Blair hiding in his bedroom on election night. It is the exuberant figure of Neil Kinnock in Sheffield Arena in 1992 roaring ‘We’re all right, we’re all right’ to 10,000 Labour activists convinced the next election was theirs. But the even more terrifying image is of Mr Blair being driven from Number 10 last year after holding power for so long, having done so little with it. Complacency is bad. But squandered opportunity is criminal.