“Great and glorious events which dazzle the beholder are represented by politicians as the outcome of grand designs, whereas they are usually products of temperament and passion.” La Rochefoucauld’s warning stands at the start of In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government (Viking Penguin, £25), by Matthew d’Ancona, columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard and GQ.
One of d’Ancona’s merits, and one of the pleasures of reviewing his book, is that he irrigates his account of British politics since May 2010 with references to other times and other literatures. From Ronald Syme, historian of ancient Rome, he takes the insight that whatever the appearance, an oligarchy is always running the show. And as d’Ancona investigates our modern British oligarchy, he remarks that the best way to understand what is going on might be to read a novel such as A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell, rather than yet another study of New Labour.
For according to d’Ancona, “the Cameroon elite…are a social grouping which chanced upon a political project”. He himself first got to know them “on a group holiday in Tuscany”. Unfortunately, he declines to tell us about this group holiday: perhaps he is saving that material for a memoir or a novel. But d’Ancona has established his credentials as an insider, who is able to gain all the access he needs to find out what has been going on in government over the last three and a half years: “I was able to speak to everyone I needed to, in many cases several times.”
That last sentence suggests a rather exclusive idea of politics. The wider Tory party is absent from this book, but then it has been absent most of the time from the thoughts of David Cameron and George Osborne, which is one reason why under their leadership the membership of the party has shrunk at an even faster rate than one might have expected. d’Ancona does not trouble to feel the pain felt by the Tory rank and file at the cut in child benefit or the same sex marriage bill. He confines himself to a study of high politics, and on these he is often very good. For a short, penetrating account of what Iain Duncan Smith is trying to do, or Cameron’s European policy, or Boris Johnson’s chances, or Osborne’s omnishambles budget and his recovery from it, this is an excellent place to start.
It is nevertheless immensely difficult to write a worthwhile book about events which are still in progress. So much of what we think about the Coalition will be influenced by the form of its eventual demise. If the Tories win an overall majority in 2015, Cameron will be the visionary who led his tribe out of the wilderness and into a land flowing with milk and honey. But if the rise of UKIP, and return of Lib Dem voters to Labour, result in the loss of scores of Tory seats, Cameron will be remembered as a disaster: a leader so cut off from ordinary people that he was incapable of winning even one election.
But these uncertainties also make the coalition more interesting. To see two parties co-operating like this is very unusual at Westminster, and there is something to be said for writing about them without the benefit of hindsight. d’Ancona observes that “the guilty secret” of the coalition “has often been that the two party leaders privately agree”. He also says, quite rightly, that the coalition has been very bad at explaining what it is doing: “There are no natural teacher-politicians in its ranks.” On page 219, d’Ancona remarks on the difficulty, amid the cacophony of soundbites, of ever giving a coherent account of what is going on:
“Just off-screen, beyond Twitter’s 140-character limit, away from the cameras and the oratory and the interviews, there was another form of politics, much of it never expressed explicitly. The late Philip Gould used to insist that a strategy did not really exist until it was written down. But 90 per cent of politics, far from being written down, is barely articulated: it exists in the pauses, the silences, the body language, the apparently casual aside. It exists in the lethal remark that only reveals its deadliness in retrospect. It is the briefing that looks parenthetical but is actually the whole point of the conversation. It is the politics that made John Major, rather than Heseltine, Prime Minister in 1990. It did for Brown in 1994, when Blair succeeded John Smith.”
Part of the point of the “Big Society”, d’Ancona observes, is that it is meant to be a bit of a mess:
“The New Labour state was unitary, uniform, controlled and homogeneous. The Big Society was meant to be untidy, disaggregated and cacophonous. To be more than just another political slogan, it had to involve mayors being truculent, and police commissioners arguing with the Home Office, and neighbourhood groups campaigning against Whitehall decisions. No figure more clearly incarnated the sheer bloody-minded, restless awkwardness of the Big Society than Boris.”
As a political slogan, the Big Society has been a complete flop. Yet at the same time, the coalition has worked with a high degree of efficiency on ambitious projects. As d’Ancona quotes Oliver Letwin saying at one point, of a white paper which has been toned down in order not to “jangle the nerves” of the Lib Dems: “It sounds less radical than it is.”
How has this combination of efficient government with the inability to tell or even think of a good story come about? D’Ancona, it seems to me, misses one detail which is of value in explaining the paradox. He treats the Cameroons as a group of friends, without observing that most of them have also received professional training. The efficiency – the mastery of technique – is a result of early training in the Conservative Research Department (CRD), a body which is mentioned in passing on a number of occasions, without much significance being attached to it. On page 107, Andrew Lansley, a former director of CRD, remarks of the people at Number Ten who are criticising his health reforms: “They all used to work for me, anyway.”
Cameron joined CRD straight out of Oxford in 1988. It was an institution which has always been associated with enlightened Tory reform, founded as it was by Neville Chamberlain in 1929, and renewed by Rab Butler to develop the Tory response to the post-war Labour government. Among the people Cameron got to know there were Steve Hilton and Ed Llewellyn – central figures in d’Ancona’s account – along with Rachel Whetstone, Catherine Fall and many others. Letwin had earlier served his political apprenticeship in CRD, and Osborne was to do so later. The mostly smooth running of the coalition is the result of the training in political technique which Cameron and his closest colleagues acquired in their early twenties.
These people are professionals. d’Ancona recounts how they realised, during the 2010 general election campaign, that they were not going to win an outright majority, so must get ready to form a coalition with the Lib Dems:
“Oliver Letwin, the chairman of the Tory policy review, was quietly tasked with a textual assignment to which his first-class mind was perfectly suited: to go through the Lib Dem manifesto line by line and identify potential areas of collaboration, issues where a compromise might be reached – and policies where the two parties diverged irrevocably. The preliminary results were presented to Osborne, Hague and Llewellyn at Osborne’s west London home at a private dinner on Sunday, 18 April.”
This dissection of a rival party’s policy is the sort of chore at which the best people in CRD became wonderfully adept. The aim was not to judge that policy on its merits, but to detect internal inconsistencies in order to hold that party up to ridicule. In CRD, one did not worry in the slightest about ideological purity. One worked out how to give the best briefing on whatever position the Conservative party found itself in, without actually lying.
d’Ancona sheds valuable light on the way Cameron and Osborne operate. He quotes someone who was “close” to the Prime Minister during the Libyan conflict and who said: “He is actually a gambler. It goes back to the side of him that loves playing bridge, and all that.”
When you play bridge, you cannot cheat, but it would be absurd not to bluff. Cameron makes the most of weak cards by playing them with verve and confidence. Not for him the hesitation which betrays the fact that he holds the king and is wondering what to do with it. But there is nothing here about Cameron’s religion, or his Anglican morality, which in my opinion are one of the keys to his behaviour.
There are many enjoyable asides in the book. d’Ancona quotes an “adviser” who says of Lansley at a time when that secretive minister was working on a much more controversial health reform than the Cameroons had bargained for: “He’s like a mad professor in the shed. We never quite know what he’s doing in there.”
Future historians will be indebted to d’Ancona for providing a feast of materials, and for being too intelligent to pretend to say the last word.
‘In It Together’, by Matthew d’Ancona (Viking Penguin, £25) can be bought from any good bookshop, or ordered from Amazon.