The success of the government’s reforms will determine the fate of progressive conservatismby Philip Collins / April 23, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
David Cameron and Nick Clegg are still travelling in the same direction. But beyond cutting the deficit, does this coalition have a purpose?
In a phrase that might haunt him, David Cameron once said that “it doesn’t matter where you come from. It’s where you are going that counts.” But, two years after the heady day in the Downing Street rose garden which announced an experiment in coalition government, where is he going? There is no shortage of activity in Whitehall and yet it all somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts. It is not obvious whether, beyond reducing the deficit, this government really has a mission at all.
Another way of posing the same puzzle is to inquire into the character of the prime minister himself. Is the real David Cameron the radical who had his 2006 party conference audience applauding gay marriage? Or did Cameron find his authentic voice in his 2008 speech when he offered a golf-club bore’s account of a health-and-safety state? This lack of definition is, in part, deliberate.
Cameron is suspicious, as good conservatives tend to be, of grand schemes. In his Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture in 2005, he praised the small remedies of “practical conservatism,” contrasting them favourably with “ideological politics.” The answer to what Cameron is will have to be sought in what Cameron does.
It would be churlish not to note that he does it rather well. Cameron’s response to the Bloody Sunday report in June 2010 was so well-judged that it drew spontaneous applause from the crowd that had gathered to watch in central Belfast. Barack Obama clearly regards Cameron as an ally worth treating to a basketball match. Close observers of the prime minister in Whitehall attest to his assurance in the job, especially in a crisis.
And what Cameron does he has to do in concert with the Liberal Democrats. Despite great foreboding on both sides, and some serious disputes, coalition is working tolerably well. There is regular speculation that the coalition is about to break apart. Yet, two years in, the chance of divorce is slender. The marriage is confirmed by the fact that the fixed-term Parliament Act makes it harder than usual to dissolve. It is possible, though, if divorce were in the interests of the two parties, but it clearly is not.