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Even from this distance of
two-and-a-half years, David Cameron’s “big,
open and comprehensive offer”
to the Liberal Democrats stands out as a
totemic speech. It was fresh: a sincere effort to overcome the tribalism that
so often defines British politics. It was strategically brilliant: helping
ensure that the gains of election night actually counted for something come the
morning after. But most of all it was startlingly clear: here was a
Conservative leader setting out, point-by-point, those areas where he disagreed
with the Lib Dems, those where he sympathised and those where he would
compromise. Mr Cameron offered a simple, unvarnished basis for discussion.

Things have, of course, become
messier since then. The Coalition Agreement sprayed gloss paint over
contentious policy areas such as Europe, and Coalition Government has meant a
splattering of blood, too. But, despite that, some of the clarity of Mr
Cameron’s original offer has remained. The updated Coalition Agreement, set to
be published in January, is meant to spell out what the Tories and Lib Dems
have achieved together so far, and what they plan to achieve in the rest of
this Parliament. Both party leaderships are currently working out the areas of
compromise and cooperation.


But let’s forget about the
Liberal Democrats for a second, and consider the Conservative backbenches. How
clear is Mr Cameron being with them? Well, there’s a tweet
written by Zac Goldsmith yesterday: “Anyone have any idea at all where the Govt
stands on Airports, Recall, EU, Energy policy, Environment? Me neither.” And
the reply
from Douglas Carswell: “Um. Dunnon [sic]. Ask Jeremy Heywood?” This exchange
may have been about the government as a whole, rather than the Prime Minister
specifically, but it’s still rather telling. There are those who complain that
they’re not sure where their leader stands on Europe or on green policy or
whatever. There are some who say they don’t really know what he’s about.

Such lines of complaint can be
unfair: Mr Cameron’s speech
to conference in 2005
is proof enough that he has a political prospectus,
and that he has communicated it to his party. But the fact that these
complaints exist ought to trouble Downing Street nonetheless. Gordon Brown’s
premiership showed what can happen when a party believes its leader doesn’t
know where he’s going. They start trying to pull him in every direction.

Besides, not all of the
complaints are unfair. One of the leitmotifs of Mr Cameron’s leadership has
been his standoffish relationship with the Conservative backbenches — and while
this has improved recently, with more frequent conversation between No.10 and
the ‘22, it’s still not chocolates and roses. For instance, some Tory MPs say
that they rely on commentators such as the Spectator’s James Forsyth, the
Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan and Rachel Sylvester of the Times to find out what
the leadership is thinking. This is testament to the skill and insight of those
journalists, sure; but not really how things should be.

More damaging, though, has been
the Tory leader’s inconsistency. Consider practically any of the policy areas
that Zac Goldsmith listed yesterday, and you’ll hit upon a u-turn of sorts.
Back in 2008, Mr Cameron said of Heathrow expansion that “there are now
increasing grounds to believe that the economic case in flawed, even without
addressing the serious environmental concerns”; now he has an “open mind” about
it. In the past year alone, he has both praised and disparaged wind farms. And
while the Prime Minister is free to change his mind, it’s often hard to fathom
why he’s doing so. Airport policy has been outsourced to the Davies inquiry; Mr
Cameron has delivered not one speech about energy and the environment since
taking office. This allows confusion to fester.

And there has been inconsistency of
another sort: even when Mr Cameron does sound a clear bugle call, he generally
drops it soon afterwards. A case in point was the “don’t you dare lecture us
about poverty” attack that he made against Labour in his 2009 conference
speech. This was powerful, persuasive and overflowing with potential — and it
has barely been heard of since.

It’s even got to the point where
Mr Cameron could learn from Ed Miliband. The way the Labour leader has co-opted
the phrase “One Nation” has been shallow and dastardly, but at least it has
been consistent. Since his conference speech last month, there have been One
Nation events, One Nation policy debates and a million One Nation tweets. It
has been a banner for Mr Miliband’s MPs to unite under. By contrast, the
central theme of Mr Cameron’s superior conference speech — as Matthew d’Ancona put it,
“how conservative means achieve progressive ends” — has already faded with the
applause. In its place, David Cameron the Prime Minister of a Coalition
Government, and a confused idea about David Cameron the Conservative Leader.

This is why, as the Conservative
and Lib Dem leaderships look to renew their relationship, Mr Cameron should
also make a “big, open and comprehensive offer” to his own party. This doesn’t
mean a dramatic public speech, nor — to pick up on a recent
theme
— does it mean telling Tory MPs what they want they want to hear,
rather than what they need to hear. But it does mean greater clarity about his
brand of Conservatism, and an openness about where he agrees, disagrees and might
compromise with other Conservatives. It also means a clearer sense of how any
future Conservative majority administration would operate.

This wouldn’t nullify all the
frustrations within the Conservative Party, of course, but it could ease some
of them. After all, it’s an approach that has already brought two different
parties closer, so it should help in uniting a single party. As it was then, let
it be now: “I want
us to work together in tackling our country's big and urgent problems…”

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