By Andrew Gimson
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David Cameron is a much better Prime
Minister than his critics are prepared to admit. He is denounced with a
ferocity that precludes debate. Hence the difficulty in knowing how to deal
with UKIP. To observe that Cameron has strengths as well as weaknesses is seen by
its supporters as a provocation, and produces ever more vehement denunciations.
His critics have become determined to believe the worst of him.
I do not wish to imply that our politicians
should be spared criticism. If people want to abuse Cameron, they have every
right to do so. One way in which we can stop our politicians from becoming
over-mighty is by insulting them.
And Cameron can himself be provocative. His
decision to go ahead with gay marriage infuriated many traditional Conservatives,
some of whom assure me they will never vote Conservative again. At Westminster,
a Tory backbencher told me this week that he and his colleagues could not
stomach the “sneer of cold command” which he felt was all they ever got from
Cameron, and from George Osborne too.
Part of the job of the press is to report
such discontent. But as a political journalist, the unsatisfactory recognition slowly
dawned on me that for most of the time I was just swept along on the general
tide of opinion. If the story was that Cameron, or Nick Clegg, or Ed Miliband
was in trouble, one tended to spend one’s time looking for evidence that
supported this thesis, and to discount anything which contradicted it, or
anything short of a major and incontestable triumph.
Major and incontestable triumphs are rare
in politics. It is more common to find evidence which can be read either way,
in part because it is simply too early to know whether the measures in question
are going to work. Cameron’s coalition has embarked on the biggest programme of
domestic reform since Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, but we can’t
yet see the results.
Cameron is a pragmatic leader leading a
coalition which is attempting some surprisingly ambitious things. But if this
work is to be seen through, and fields such as welfare and education are to be improved, he has to keep his coalition together. And that in turn requires a
constant process of concession, compromise and what Winston Churchill once called
“the inevitable acquiescence in inferior solutions”.
The phrase comes in Churchill’s essay on
Lord Rosebery, who as Prime Minister in 1894-95 had high aims, but failed
because “He would not go through the laborious, vexatious and at times
humiliating processes necessary under modern conditions to bring about these
great ends. He would not stoop; he did not conquer.”
After Cameron had failed, in 2010, to lead
his party to victory, he stooped and formed a coalition with the Liberal
Democrats. It would have been more daring to form a minority administration,
govern for a few months and then seek a decisive mandate. But the country was
in deep financial crisis, and one may doubt whether the Tories on their own
would have been any better at dealing with the deficit than the coalition has
By choosing the prudent rather than the precarious
option, and insisting that this arrangement would last for five years, Cameron
achieved a stability which allowed other reforms to go ahead. By making the Lib
Dems an offer they could not refuse, he has inflicted deep pain on them. And by
running a deficit which remains astronomical, he and George Osborne have posed
a very difficult question for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, namely whether Labour
would run a still more astronomical deficit.
None of this is especially glorious. It
offers nothing to those who would prefer a “jump to glory style of politics”,
as Michael Oakeshott called it in his essay “On being conservative”. Cameron is
often accused by his critics of being arrogant, but has actually been too
modest for their taste. He has not attempted, by a heroic programme of tax and
spending cuts, to administer shock therapy to the British economy. He has taken
a more gradual path, and at least in the south-east, things seem at last to
be picking up. I am told that on the 7.34 a.m. train from Guildford to
London Waterloo, it is harder now to get a seat than it was six months ago.
How unsatisfying that humdrum news is for
people who look to politics for salvation. They judge a leader by an altogether
higher standard: demand the impossible from Cameron, or whoever else is in
power, and then condemn the Prime Minister for failing to achieve it. They are
perfectionists, who choose to believe that a true Conservative can bring about
heaven on earth, and that Cameron fails to do this because he is not
Conservative enough. In days gone by, socialists used to believe that kind of
Utopian claptrap, but the disease has spread to the Tories, who used to be immune
At the other end of the spectrum, a large
number of political commentators conduct themselves like racing tipsters. They
only respect the horse they think is going to win. There are two reasons why
this is a bad way in which to follow politics. The first is that the tipsters
are often wrong. In a two-horse race, or even a race with three or four
starters, it is only necessary for the lead horse to put its foot down a hole
and break its leg, and some slower nag may come home first. We can’t yet know
for certain what will happen in May 2015.
The other reason why the tipster approach
to politics is unsatisfactory is that it may be more honourable to lose an
election than to win it. Democracy cannot function without good losers. In
1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home narrowly lost to Harold Wilson. Yet as Charles Moore
points out in his new biography of Margaret Thatcher, for her, Sir Alec was “a
marvellous man” and in many ways her favourite Tory leader. Unlike some of her
followers, she loved and admired an aristocrat who knew how to behave.
Mention of Lady Thatcher reminds one how
impossible her successors have found it to define themselves in terms of her.
Anything less than complete devotion distresses her supporters. Robin Harris
claims in his new biography of her that she was not interested in Cameron, “and
he was interested in her only as an element in his public relations strategy”.
It seems to me completely ridiculous to
expect a new Tory leader to replicate her ideological fervour. Cameron is an
Anglican, who can make very rapid and often correct judgements about things
because he can draw on an inherited tradition of behaviour.
Cameron’s critics demean themselves when
they attack him for having been to a good school. How delighted the Americans
would be to possess, in Eton, an ancient foundation which had adapted itself so
well to modern times. From being a kind of comprehensive school for the upper
classes, Eton has turned itself into a grammar school which produces the
meritocrats who are now required. We need more grammar schools like this, where
able children can develop their full potential. To attack Eton, under the chippy
and in any case mistaken impression that it is a mere repository of unearned
privilege, is to reject a part of our nation of which we should be proud.
One cannot yet know whether Cameron’s
coalition will come to be regarded as a success or a failure. But for
so many Conservatives, or former Conservatives, to be determined already to
condemn it as a hopeless and disreputable failure, suggests a lack of mental