Some of the coalition’s most vocal detractors come from within. But Cameron and Clegg’s foes aren’t strong enough to trouble them yetby Anne McElvoy / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Political parties are the most ungrateful entities in the known world—with the salient exception of children. Thus the coalition passed its 100 days with high public ratings and a chorus of disapproval from within the two parties. The more the public settles into a life with the ying-yang government, the more insistent the sniping at Westminster.
Some Lib Dem activists are planning to use their conference to urge members not to send their children to one of Michael Gove’s promised new free schools. So we will have a boycott preceding the arrival of the thing being boycotted.
Meanwhile unquiet Tory souls, like the renegade David Davis, sneer at the Brokeback Mountain-style coupling of Clegg and Cameron, with the sinuous inference that it is an unnatural alliance and not good for the wholesome Tory community.
How strong are the detractors’ arguments? Underlying the Lib Dem disagreements is the unresolved question of what liberalism is. To Simon Kovar in The Liberal magazine, it is grounded in great historical advances—the 1906 government and the 1945 election victory on the back of the ideas of the intellectual “midwives” Beveridge and Keynes. He complains that since the rise of Clegg and his Orange Book tribe, who saw their task as redefining modern liberalism as less statist: “The Liberal Democrats made a net gain of just ten seats.” This year, they gained a mere 1 percentage point rise in the vote and lost a net five seats. On this logic, the rise of the “neo-liberal” wing of the party has been a disaster.
We can of course only imagine the vast advances which might have been secured by the party turning to the left. But the trend for Labour suggests otherwise.
Brass tacks time. Without the triumph of the Orange Book brigade, liberals would be most unlikely to be sharing power now. What critics of the modest electoral improvement of the third party often seem to want is an incremental improvement in performance—without ever arriving at a destination called power. They prefer travelling hopefully to Being There.
This is attractive if you want liberal democracy to be merely an adjunct of the left; inherently sceptical of private enterprise, reliant on the state as the great enabler. Otherwise it isn’t.
One senior Lib Dem inside the “neo-lib” tent sighs that it’s a relief his party’s left is so disorganised. Among other things they lack generals. Charles Kennedy would be the natural focus for dissatisfaction, but his personal circumstances make him a waning force as an alternative. Matthew (now Lord) Taylor is the most articulate and experienced sceptic on the coalition and already voicing doubts about the direction of public service reform. I suspect we will hear more from him, but it is hard to foment dissent while wearing ermine.
On the other side, disquiet is echoed by the Conservatives for whom the coalition can only ever be an unsatisfactory compromise. Rarely do I attend a Tory gathering which does not end with someone crying into their beer (or Petrus ’61, depending) about why Cameron failed to secure an overall majority.
This is the great legitimacy question over Cameron’s leadership. He resolved it neatly by pressing ahead with the coalition before the full horror of the defeat had struck home.
Today, he is practising jujitsu: using the strength of opponents against them. If the government’s austerity programme is described as harsh, he wheels out Nick Clegg and new recruit Alan Milburn on social mobility. When accused of pandering to the Lib Dems by voices on the right, he can reasonably claim that (so far) the public like co-operation and sense that this may be the time for it to flourish.
Potential Tory detractors haven’t yet dared speak their name. Michael Ashcroft, who has been compiling a report on the Tories’ election campaign, has strong instincts about the flaws in the big society approach and some good arguments about the election campaign. Alas, his tax status made him part of the perception that the party really had not changed from a home for the brash and rich. Camp Cameron has decided that if this turns into a row, they are happy to fight it. “As deputy chairman, Michael didn’t deliver a big shift in the key marginals,” says one leading friend of Dave. “If he wants to have a go, bring it on.”
Similarly, Cameron has one key weapon against his internal foe, David Davis. He did, after all, beat him squarely in the 2005 race and Davis looks like a lone wolf these days. Inside No 10, a watchful eye is kept on Boris Johnson, who sometimes sounds less than delighted by the election outcome. Fortunately, Boris will be preoccupied seeking re-election as mayor in 2012, which should (sort of) keep him out of trouble.
Enmities often define politicians more than their friendships ever could. Cameron and Clegg can sleep easy—at least for a while. Their foes just aren’t up to the job.