The next few days will see David Cameron doing what he does best: looking the part. Whether it is the Jubilee celebrations or the Olympic torch relay, Cameron can be relied upon to know — or look as if he knows — what is expected of him as Prime Minister.
Cameron’s natural ease is his greatest asset. It is why Downing Street aides are convinced that this summer’s events will help restore his reputation. Combine this with the anticipated national feel-good factor and it is easy to see why so many expect that the Jubilee and the Games will ease the government to calmer waters.
Despite the lightness with which he bears the burden of command, however, Cameron is under a pressure which no other postwar Prime Minister has experienced: he is running a coalition. One Cabinet colleague calculates that Cameron spends more time on coalition management than anything else. On top of this come the demands of party management, which are becoming increasingly onerous as Tories from Cabinet-level down chafe at the constraints of coalition.
Two years into government, coalition management is a far more difficult task than it was. At the beginning, Tories and Liberal Democrats were surprised to find how much they agreed. Both sides once claimed that the influence of the other was improving policy.
But the trust which first lubricated the workings of government is now in short supply. Nick Clegg’s lot complains that David Cameron changed the coalition’s policy on the European Court of Human Rights at the last sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions without consulting them. Cameron’s crew, meanwhile, are irritated by the Deputy Prime Minister heading off to Berlin last week to give a speech on how to end the eurozone crisis, the text of which he released to the press before showing it either to them or the Foreign Office. They tut that it is deeply irresponsible for the Deputy Prime Minister to go around freelancing on foreign policy.
Coalition agreement on policy is now more often the product of a war of attrition than a meeting of minds. In a sign of the mood in Whitehall, Vince Cable has been indulging in open speculation about how the coalition partners might separate before the next election. Cable is something of a loose canon, perhaps, but what he says in public is little different than what other ministers say privately.
The worry for the Prime Minister is that three issues are emerging which will place an even greater strain on coalition unity: Europe, House of Lords reform and a confrontation with the European Court of Human Rights.
There’s a growing view among Tory ministers that Greece leaving the euro before 2015 is now almost certain. If the anti-bailout parties triumph in the elections on the 17th of June, they expect that Berlin will have the European Central Bank cut off support for Athens and the Greek banks to try and force them out of the single currency. Even if the pro-bailout parties, as recent polls suggest, can cobble together a coalition, it is still far from certain that Greece can manage the 40 per cent devaluation it needs by purely internal means; the eurozone is finding out the hard way that you can’t solve an exchange-rate crisis inside a currency union.
When a country does leave the euro, the European Union will be thrown into a crisis the scale of which has never been seen before. If the single currency is to be saved, then the remaining members will have to move to a far closer fiscal union — and fast.
These changes will almost certainly require a new treaty. This provides a first potential flashpoint. Nick Clegg has already said that Britain must not veto any eurozone-only treaty. This has caused deep irritation in Tory circles: they don’t see why you would declare your hand before the negotiations have even started.
Cameron will come under pressure from several Tories within his own Cabinet and his backbenchers to extract concessions for Britain. There are signs from No. 10 that Cameron might be amenable to this idea. One influential figure there says, intriguingly, ‘we are thinking about Europe a lot — Conservative thoughts about Europe.’
If Europe were not enough of a threat to the coalition, there’s also Clegg’s plan for a House of Lords largely elected by proportional representation. To the Liberal Democrats, this is unfinished business from the last Liberal government. To the Tory benches, it is an attempt to create a second chamber in which Liberal Democrats will always hold the balance of power.
The Deputy Prime Minister wants a Lords reform bill to have a second reading before the summer recess. But a draft bill has yet to go through Cabinet committee. I understand that two main questions are causing this delay: the method of election to the second house and how the powers of the Commons can be protected. Tory ministers fear that if they do not respect the deep concerns of their own side about these matters the programme motion will be lost and the Commons will spend its time talking about little other than Lords reform. This would imperil the rest of the government’s agenda.
But the Liberal Democrat leadership will regard it as a breach of faith if Tory MPs talk out Lords reform. In these circumstances, they would be loth to vote for the boundary changes that the Cameroons believe are vital to the Tories’ chances of a majority at the next election. Take away boundary changes, and you remove one of the reasons the Tory leadership most frequently gives to its own MPs about why the coalition must be kept going.
The third dagger aimed at the heart of the coalition is the European Court of Human Rights. Early on in his premiership, Cameron said that Britain would have to comply with the Strasbourg ruling allowing prisoners to vote. But Tory opposition to that decision is so intense that he has decided that he can’t force it through. He now boasts about defying this ‘foreign court’. This deeply displeases the Liberal Democrats, who view the Strasbourg court as a central pillar of the liberal order.
Cameron might look the part at ceremonies. But keeping the show on the road for the next few years will be the real test of his premiership.
James Forsyth appears this week on The Spectator’s podcast, ‘The View from 22’: spectator.co.uk/podcast
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