Benjamin Barnard is a student.
By 2020, Britain will be transformed. The scale, aims and function of public spending will have shifted irrecoverably, in accordance with the conservative vision of a low welfare, low tax and high wage society. Over 900 free schools will have prepared around 500,000 children for more rigorous exams, based on curricula antithetic to those studied just a decade earlier. Not only will Britain’s structural deficit have been eliminated but future Chancellors, if George Osborne gets his way, may also be legally obliged to run a budget surplus. Britain is changing; its reconstruction is distinctively conservative.
The man who has led this transformation, however, is sometimes described as ‘vapid’ (to quote Lord Sewel in his inadvertent interview with the Sun). How often do you hear people complain that they don’t know what David Cameron actually stands for? Indeed, there should have been no need for a Prime Minister – who had not only torn up the economic playbook of his predecessor and that of almost every other European leader, but also led his party for over a decade – to explain what “pumped him up” just a week before Britain went to the polls. For many, Cameron is too supine, spun, and spineless to lead Britain through its political fatigue under the One Nation banner he claims to represent.
But make no mistake, Cameron has deliberately underplayed his ideological motivations, using his first newspaper interview after being elected Conservative Party Leader to describe himself not as “a deeply ideological person” but “a practical one”. Whereas Boris Johnson’s external veneer of clowning has largely been revealed as the disguise of a deeply ambitious political operator, the Prime Minister’s brand of ideologically baseless pragmatism has gone unexamined. How do you square the view that there is nothing more to Cameron than brylcreem and populist photo opportunities with the seismic changes his administration has introduced?
You can’t. “Pumped-up Dave” may have received much ridicule, but what the media and his political opponents, who decided that Cameron’s attempts to ‘do passion’ were simply artificial mutterings from an ideologically lacklustre politician, had failed to realise was that the fostering of this image has been his political masterstroke: Cameron’s faceless exterior has meant that there is little or no association between Britain’s most underestimated conviction politician and the brand of the party he represents.
Political parties are defined by two criteria: their brand and their leadership. While Cameron was a much more popular leader than Ed Miliband, the Conservative brand has been considerably weaker than the Labour brand since at least the days of Tony Blair. New Labour’s greatest long-term political achievement was to rubbish “the Tories” as ruthless, unreasonable and reactionary. Although the Conservatives will now try to tarnish the Labour brand with the radical views of its new leader, the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon at the last election showed that many are still wary of associating themselves with ‘the nasty party’, even though they ultimately voted for them. Cameron’s appreciation of this dichotomy between party leadership and party brand has defined his image and, by popularising it, he has partly made up for his party’s brand weakness. But the perception that he represents nothing goes deeper than this.
First, by underplaying his ideological credentials, Cameron has made moves imbedded in ideology seem natural, thus adding to their appeal. He has operated according to the concept of the “Overton Window”, the political theory that the electorate will only accept a narrow range of ideas. Gordon Brown, whilst Chancellor, followed this ruthlessly, refusing to abandon a Thatcherite settlement and only slowly introducing redistributive measures such as the windfall tax and minimum wage.
Cameron’s pragmatic presentation of ideological reform has allowed policy, the ideological baggage of which would otherwise be unacceptable, to pass through the “Overton Window”. Reducing public spending, for example, was presented as the logical solution to ‘living within one’s means’ rather than as part of a conservative vision of a smaller state. But when ideas enter through the Overton Window, they then begin to define it. That Question Time audience’s collective gasp, on hearing Ed Miliband claim that the previous Labour government hadn’t spent too much, reflected the political unfeasibility of rejecting conservative economic narratives whilst retaining the credentials of economic responsibility. Although dependent upon practical economic success, Cameron’s framing of the economic debate in this way ensured that it had to be conducted upon his terms, but without his political bias being recognised.
Second, Cameron’s pragmatic image has meant that his opponents have been unable to brand him as a ruthless ideological cutter as effectively as they might have done. Instead, they tried to associate him with the unpopular Conservative brand by presenting him as an out-of-touch Etonian without concern for ordinary people. However, as soon as his narratives passed through the “Overton Window”, and were compounded by economic successes, the concomitant Labour shift in economic policy meant that their attacks on the ‘Tory brand’ backfired. When Labour accepted the need to reduce the deficit by making cuts, effectively all the attacks that they had made on the Conservative brand were then equally applicable to their own brand. Hence, during the recent leadership election, Corbyn’s more moderate rivals were too scared to attack the substance of his beliefs for fear of being decried as a ‘Red Tories’. As a result, they could only produce whimpers that he was unelectable.
Those who believe that Cameron’s pursuit of the superficial, to quote Simon Heffer, “does not promote growth or recovery; it does not educate our children better, [or] reduce the incidence of infection in hospitals” have got it wrong. Spin, image and personality are vital to how politics is communicated, perceived and received. Popularising your image needn’t impede an ideologically motivated course in government. As Cameron has shown us, far from stifle intellectual assaults on the enemy, it can create them. His strategy of power is unlike anything ever seen before in British politics – unstoppable because it is indefinable.