Ten Downing Street has been an odd place these past few days. The prime ministerial portraits that line the main staircase have been taken down and the furniture covered in dust sheets, as the authorities take advantage of David Cameron’s absence to spring clean. But the process has reminded those who work there of the transience of power, of how quickly they could be removed and the question of what legacy they might leave behind. What will future occupants say when they see the portrait of Cameron on the wall?
Toward the end of his time in No. 10, Steve Hilton would sit in policy meetings and ask, ‘But is it transformative?’ These words, delivered with a flick of the hand to illustrate a thought coming out of his head, attracted much mockery from jaded civil servants. But what Hilton understood was that prime ministers have a limited supply of time and political capital. To leave a lasting impression, they have to concentrate not on little changes but big ones.
Michael Gove, a close friend of both Hilton and Cameron, used to goad Gordon Brown by emphasising the distinction between the two types of PMs: ‘transformative’ ones, who marked the beginning of an era, and ‘fag-end’ ones. Hilton’s radical impatience has now taken him to California. On the way out, he griped to friends that he wasn’t sure whether Cameron was prepared to do what it takes to really change things.
Cameron has been prepared to jettison (or soften) much of the policy he espoused in the 2005 Tory leadership contest. Then, he chided those who focused on gross domestic product alone: we should aspire to general well-being (GWB). Cameron now monitors the GDP figures as nervously as any prime minister, hoping to find in them a vindication of his economic strategy. His sleigh rides with huskies have been replaced by bold declarations about ensuring the cheapest energy bills for every customer. His much-ridiculed Big Society is still part of the vocabulary, but is reserved for defending the government from attack by churches or charities.
Most of these shifts have been forced on Cameron by circumstance. He was preparing to be Prime Minister in an age where he believed (as Oliver Letwin put it) that politics had moved from being econo-centric to socio-centric. But two years into his project, the financial crisis showed just how mistaken that assumption was.
Two things from the pre-crash Cameron message have survived: his focus on the NHS and his commitment to gay marriage. The Prime Minister may be prepared to U-turn on many issues (too many, according to some of his closest Cabinet allies) but on these two he is immovable. It is for this reason that there’s no chance of the Chancellor cutting NHS spending in the June spending review, even as other department’s budgets are cut again.
Talk to Cameron’s allies about what his legacy might be, and they make two points. First, he is only a third of the way through what he hopes will be a ten-year stretch in Downing Street. Second, the government is making lasting changes to education and welfare. But, as Cameron has the humility to acknowledge, these reforms aren’t his reforms. Rather, they are Michael Gove’s and Iain Duncan Smith’s.
To his supporters, this is a welcome return to the days when prime ministers didn’t feel the need to be ‘personally associated’ with everything that their administrations did. Instead they appointed the right people and let them get on with it. It’s a rejection of Tony Blair’s presidential model. But the problem is that the Tories intend to fight a presidential-style campaign at the next election. They wish to ask only one question: who do you want as leader — David Cameron or Ed Miliband?
This makes the question of Cameron’s legacy all the more important. He needs to define what he is for. His deputy is clear about his aim: to make the Liberal Democrats a party of government, and coalitions the norm in Britain. So far, Nick Clegg is not doing badly. His MPs and his party have taken to office more easily than most (including Clegg himself) expected. The coalition has also proved surprisingly stable. At the next election, it will be harder to suggest that a hung parliament leads to chaos.
But the real tests of Clegg’s success will come at the next election and in its aftermath. In many ways, Liberal Democrat unity was not fully tested in May 2010 because it was clear that the party could not prop up a defeated Gordon Brown even if it wanted to. The options were Cameron, or opposition. But in 2015, there will be a genuine choice of partners. This will place a far greater stress on the Liberal Democrats. They will have to make an active choice about whether they would like to govern in a centre-left or centre-right coalition.
Ed Miliband is the leader who is keenest to become one of Gove’s ‘transformative’ PMs. He likes to talk of ‘new assumptions’, a ‘new economy’ and a ‘new society’. But so far, he has consciously avoided giving the country much detail on how these changes would be achieved. We are promised more concrete policies by the next Labour conference. But he is still some way off passing what he himself calls ‘the change test’, showing voters that his government really would be different from what has gone before.
Before the 1992 election, Neil Kinnock urged voters to consign John Major to a footnote in the history books. Cameron avoided that fate on day one; he will go down as the first postwar coalition PM. But ironically, history may remember him best for something that has always interested him less than it does his party: Europe. His pledge to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union and then put them to a referendum will be the defining commitment of his second term. If he has one.
Even if he is not Prime Minister after 2015, he can claim to have shaped British politics insofar as the other parties are preparing to copy his stance. The Liberal Democrat leadership is already readying its own referendum commitment. It’s an achievement; but not, one suspects, what he would like to be in the history curriculum for. But there is still time. When Mr Cameron returns from holiday and walks past his re-hung predecessors, he may consider what he’d like his legacy to be.