David Cameron isn’t a disaster, yet I long for a radical new leader
At his best, the PM has brought firmness and clarity – but not to the big issue of our age
Britain's PM Cameron responds to a question during a joint news conference with U.S. President Obama
The Prime Minister seems to regard the issue as a migraine-inducing matter of party opinion-management rather than for what it is – the main constitutional, strategic and economic question which this country faces
By Charles Moore
7:49PM BST 17 May 2013
I often give thanks that I am not, as I once was, a columnist on Westminster politics. Partly this is because the political leaders are not as interesting as they were in the Eighties, when I first analysed them. But that, I admit, is a typical “Why are policemen getting younger?” point; the grumble of a veteran. There is also another reason.
It is possible that the Coalition has created a situation that is genuinely incomprehensible, just like Cold War Italian politics. You can read in the media many expositions of the balance of power in our Government. Some seem brilliant, but is any correct? Not only the political columnists, but the political players themselves do not really know what is happening.
The modern House of Commons, with its bogus “family-friendly” hours which have curtailed debate, is a place whose members no longer know one another: even whips do not understand what is going on. The same applies to the shape of the Government. The Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders had no previous experience to go on when they formed a coalition. They equally have none about what might make it break up. So when they confront what Kipling called the “two impostors” of triumph and disaster, they do not necessarily know which is which.
I shall not pretend to explain, therefore, who has won this weird political week. It began with a huge Tory back-bench revolt on a European referendum. It ended with a Tory MP being encouraged by the Conservative leadership to put forward as a private member’s Bill the EU referendum legislation which that same leadership had refused, as the dominant part of the Government, to introduce. It looks very odd to me, and to the few remaining members of the public who still try to follow what happens in the House of Commons. But perhaps it reflects, well concealed, a work of tactical genius. I do not know.
Instead, let us stand back. When we do that, we can see the true situation, which is that no political party knows what to do. The eurozone crisis has made it impossible for any British politician to advance a strongly pro-European argument at this time. And the referendum idea, whatever the flaws of detail, is not one that any political leadership can reject flat-out. So if you are a pro-European, or the type of politician (the majority) who refuses to think about this subject, all you can do is to attack the “phobia” of your opponents.
This is not a policy. I hope that the issue of the referendum is soon put to a vote in the Commons. Then Labour and the Liberal Democrats will either have to say why they do not want the people to vote, or stop sniping and vote for a referendum after all. They would be pretty crazy not to do the latter.
In its self-obsession, the Conservative Party does not see this. It is working its way towards a referendum position that gives it a huge advantage over its rivals, but it is too preoccupied with its own hatreds to notice.
Within the Tories, the faults are on both sides. Among the Eurosceptics there are too many who are clearly motivated by resentment of, even contempt for, Mr Cameron. They prefer embarrassing him to persuading him. So naturally he will try to resist them.
Within Mr Cameron’s entourage, there is much too visceral a dislike of anyone with a Eurosceptic past, an almost aesthetic revulsion against the type of people whom John Major, 20 years ago, called “the bastards”. The Cameroons are so concerned with shafting, neutralising or, in extremis, placating such people that they never seriously analyse the content of the European situation. Naturally, the Eurosceptics mistrust them.
One of the factors behind this quarrel is a belief that the Conservatives cannot win the next election, a fear made much worse by Ukip. I do not see why this prophecy has to be true, though it could easily prove self-fulfilling.
On any measure of public opinion, the biggest problem for governing Britain just now is that no party is at present in a position to succeed. Labour remains enmeshed in its unresolved past. It is owned by the trade unions and led by Hamlet, with its economic policy supplied by Iago. The Liberal Democrats are weighed down by the compromises of office, too intellectually feeble either to justify their current approach or to strike out for a new one.
Beside such opponents, the Tories are not so hopeless. If, as Sir Mervyn King finally suggested this week, the economy is at last recovering, they take the benefit. Despite all their out-of-date, boom-era preoccupations, such as same-sex marriage, increased spending on foreign aid and bank-breaking green energy, the Conservatives are doing some things that matter. They are confronting welfare abuse more fiercely than any previous government. They are making schools better and – just – holding the line on the deficit. Shockingly late, they are helping supply-side recovery, such as making it easier to build new houses.
And although their leader – like every single current Western leader – has no interesting answer to the crisis of capitalism which has now been with us for more than five years, Mr Cameron is visibly more suited to run this country than anyone else with any immediate chance of trying to do so. I find myself in the odd position of longing for a new leader (I don’t much mind from which party) who can propose – à la Thatcher, Roosevelt, de Gaulle – a quite different way ahead, and yet also feeling that Mr Cameron is not at all a disaster. It is not the fault of one man, not even of Gordon Brown, that we are in a mess. We could do a lot worse than David Cameron: immediately before him, we did.
Mr Cameron is good at seeing the difference between what matters and what doesn’t, in deciding what to do, and in stating it in good, jargon-free English. He is a reasonable man, but without the reasonable man’s fault of never being able to make up his mind. At his best, he can express strong conservative thoughts in a modern, unsectarian idiom.
Take, for example, the tough line he chose on Islamist extremism, setting out clearly why public policy should not do deals with the nastiest elements in society. Take his boldness in confronting Alex Salmond’s drive for Scottish independence. Mr Cameron firmly stated his unionism, supported the right of Scots to vote on the issue, called the referendum, set a date, and got the argument going. Now the polls show roughly 70 per cent of Scots in favour of keeping the Union after all.
If only he would bring such clarity to the subject of Europe. Perhaps he is scarred by his experience as a special adviser when the Major government floundered into the Maastricht Treaty. He seems to regard the issue as a migraine-inducing matter of party opinion-management rather than for what it is – the main constitutional, strategic and economic question which this country faces.
On the subject of Europe, Cameron the great moderniser is painfully 20th century. His excellent speech in January seemed to grasp the way that the current structure of the EU – simultaneously rigid and weak – cannot handle the changing shape of the modern world. Yet his actual behaviour is reactive, defensive, enmeshed in over-clever thoughts about deals he might be able to do with the Germans. Strange that a man so capable of leading holds back where leadership is most needed.