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Afraid of being right

The coalition risks withering because Cameron won’t listen to the wisdom of ordinary Conservatives

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

30 July 2011

12:00 AM

The coalition risks withering because Cameron won’t listen to the wisdom of ordinary Conservatives

It’s the Mary Poppins principle of successful government: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. A government does the necessary things to keep the nation healthy while dispensing
regular sweeteners to sustain the patient’s consent for the treatment.

Across the country the vast majority of Conservatives are agreed about the tough remedies necessary to restore Britain’s sick economy back to health. They’re also united on the treats
that will sugar the pill. The problem is the coalition government. Like all coalition governments, the alliance between Nick Clegg and David Cameron has badly eroded the relationship between the
ordinary voter and the political class. Cameron doesn’t wake up thinking about Essex Man or Worcester Woman. He wakes with Nick Clegg on his mind. He doesn’t move, breathe or speak
without worrying if the Liberal Democrat leader will approve. He also pays far too much attention to Westminster’s chattering classes, despite their remoteness from the inflation and crime
that makes life so miserable for so much of middle Britain. As we’re all now only too aware, both Cameron and Osborne have been far more interested in what Fleet street thinks than in what
ordinary people think — it’s as if they’re floating in a bubble of privilege above the common herd.

But Britain needs a government that will lift it out of the economic slow lane and restore the oomph that creates the wealth, jobs and tax revenues that fund our public services. Almost nothing
else matters, not just for the country’s prosperity but also for Cameron’s political future. If the economy is strong in 2015, the Conservative leader will be re-elected. If it’s
weak, he’s very vulnerable.

The gap between what mainstream Conservatives want and their leadership is able to supply is enormous. Party members and right-of-centre campaigners agree that Britain needs lower taxes on the
people the left call high earners. More sensible people actually think of them as job creators and realise that piling taxes on them means less entrepreneurship and fewer jobs. Most Conservatives
also agree that we need to end the subsidy of expensive renewable energies that place impossible burdens on UK manufacturing. Moreover, we need to get out of the European Union’s social and
employment policies, which are turning Britain and the rest of the continent into the world’s sluggards. The Liberal Democrats oppose every one of these policies and many similar ones
proposed this week by Britain’s centre-right think-tanks in a comprehensive ‘growth manifesto’.

But it’s not just the economic recovery plan that the Liberal Democrats have prevented. They’ve also stopped Cameron enacting the popular policies on Europe, crime and immigration that
would have helped the government retain full consent during the valley of mid-term unpopularity. The truth is, despite the spectacular own goal of the tuition fees policy, the Liberal Democrats are
incredibly influential. They are the yellow tail wagging the Tory dog, veto-ing or diluting mainstream Conservative policies.

If the full truth is told, however, it would be wrong to lay all the blame for Cameron’s hesitancy at the Liberal Democrats’ door. The weaknesses of his strategy are long-standing and a
clue to why was provided in this magazine last week.


In his regular column Matthew Parris attacked what he saw as the ‘hard-core’ policies of the Conservative grassroots. In fact he didn’t attack the policies of the grassroots; he
attacked a grotesque caricature of them. I had identified green taxes, continuity of policy towards the EU and softer prison sentences as dimensions of Cameronism that had disappointed
rank-and-file members. In reality, these things aren’t just unpopular with the Conservative faithful, they are unpopular with large majorities of the British people.

I expect left-wing commentators to misrepresent centre-right politics. It’s depressing when friends on the right do the same. Mr Parris took my list of mainstream conservative policies and
represented them in the most crude way possible. He portrayed a common-sense policy on immigration as ‘immigrant-bashing’. Support for the NHS reforms was likened to wanting to
‘slash health’. A desire for spending control mutated into the unwarranted suggestion that Tory members wanted ‘a cut in child benefit to pay for a new royal yacht’. In the
most ridiculous of his non-sequiturs, he seemed to think that Tories who support grammar schools and higher defence spending might also want to criminalise sodomy. No, I didn’t get the
connection either.

I dwell on Matthew Parris because his smearing of decent conservatives is not an isolated phenomenon. At every opportunity, large sections of the British commentariat attempt to misrepresent the
right and conservatism. Euroscepticism becomes anti-foreigner. Tax cuts for hard-pressed families who couldn’t dream of affording the £100 lunches enjoyed by Westminster pundits are
presented as selfishness. Control of welfare spending so that scarce money can be devoted to the old, sick, disabled and desperate becomes anti-poor.

Cameron has been cowed by these elite opinions. In opposition he promised not to ‘bang on’ about Europe. He didn’t talk about immigration during the election campaign. Unlike
conservatives in Australia, Canada and America, who have championed popular scepticism about green taxes to very great effect, he fell in with the consensus on unilateral action to combat climate
change.

This is a terrible shame, because Cameron, perhaps more than any other Conservative politician in a generation, was well placed to sell traditional conservative policies. He’s a politician
who, like Obama, understands the importance of tone and personal narrative in politics. Obama showed that reasonableness in debate and personality is incredibly important in electoral politics.
Underneath Obama’s moderate personality, the US Democrats smuggled in a left-wing agenda on spending.

The Cameroons’ mistake was to combine a moderate leader with a milk-and-water agenda. Rather than aiming high and using Cameron’s skills to sell the double agenda that Britain needs
— and wants — there was a substantial watering-down of policy too. There was too much tactics and not enough authenticity.

It is notable that Cameron’s two most successful ministers have escaped the Westminster bubble. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith are both self-confident enough to ignore elite views and dig
deeply into understanding public opinion. Both rooted their ideas in the work of conservative think-tanks. Both are compassionate conservatives who have targeted scarce resources on the most needy.
They are supplying exactly what the public want and are flourishing as a result.

Cameron cannot escape coalition with the Liberal Democrats until 2015 but he can do the next best thing. He can escape his coalition with the commentariat. The first thing he needs to do is to
realise they are not as all-knowing as they like to think they are.

I don’t remember a commentator in the land who approved of the nature of the campaign to save Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system. I do remember many pundits who poured scorn
on the No campaign’s focus on the cost and complexity of changing to the Alternative Vote method. This was not, they intoned, an elevated or effective way of discussing an important
constitutional issue. The No2AV campaign rightly ignored the chattering class and went direct to voters. A landslide victory was the result. A rare thing in politics and not predicted by any
commentator at any time. Like American politicians, who are much more professional and scientific in their methods, the anti-AV operation undertook extensive market research. It identified the
arguments that worked with the public and stuck steadfastly to them, regardless of what the pundits thought.

David Cameron’s recent decision to appoint Andrew Cooper as his chief pollster and strategic adviser suggests he might now, from inside his Downing Street bunker, have a direct connection
with voters. While Nick Clegg pulls him one way, Cooper will hopefully tug him back towards the people. We’ll see. While Cooper is now apparently telling Cameron that he needs to deliver much
stricter control of immigration, he counselled against emphasising the issue before the election when he was an adviser to the campaign. He is only closing a gap between Cameron and the majority
that he helped to create.

The Tory leader should have listened to his members at the time of the coalition negotiations. He should have formed a minority government, governed for a few months, laid out his programme and
then asked the people to vote again. It would not have been a course without risk, but the party had the money, the leader and the sense of national emergency that should have allowed it to defeat
a demoralised Labour party second time around.

Sadly, but understandably, Cameron did not choose that path. He chose the yellow Europhile bird in the hand and formed Britain’s first coalition government since the war. That government is
looking unable to deliver both the ambitious growth agenda that Britain needs and the conservative agenda that — whatever some commentators may say — is what the majority of voters
want.


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