By Tim Montgomerie
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Over the last couple of days Bruce Anderson has been doing exactly what I hoped he would do when I asked him to join ConservativeHome. He's been defending David Cameron from right-wing "belly-achers" (like Iain Martin and, I think, like me). He's been telling us all that we should "revel in our good fortune" – yes, revel – that people like Osborne and Hague are in charge in these difficult times. Bruce is, as James Forsyth has noted, closer to David Cameron than any other commenter. Whereas the handful of other leading Coalition-sympathetic columnists tend to be closest to George Osborne (notably Matt d'Ancona, Ben Brogan and Danny Finkelstein), Bruce is arguably unique in orbiting Planet Cameron.
Reacting to Bruce's apologetics Simon Richards tweeted his response: "He did the same for Major". Which got me thinking.
It is sometimes asked whether Cameron is more of a Heath or a Thatcher; whether he is a false dawn or the real thing. Insofar as he's like anyone I think it's John Major. And I don't say this to bash Cameron. I've long thought that history should be a lot kinder to Major and his government.
The failings of the Major years are well rehearsed – and, of course, they ended in electoral disaster – but behind the noise of the ERM debacle and those years of sleaze, enormously important work was done. The economy was in terrific shape by 1997. The Ken and Eddie show laid the foundations for Bank of England independence. Peter Lilley introduced long-term reforms that cut future welfare bills. The National Lottery revolutionised funding of sport and culture. David Curry's City Challenge was accelerating the urban regeneration that Michael Heseltine had begun. There was the Northern Ireland peace process. The opt out from the single currency and social chapter. And most importantly of all there was Michael Howard's prisons revolution. Where Thatcher had failed, John Major's administration turned the tide on what had seemed a remorseless post-war increase in crime.
And let's not forget that this government is doing some very important things too. It's easy to be disappointed with the things that it is doing wrong and it is getting some things very wrong – just as Major did – but it is also very promising on some important fronts too.
Pickles, Gove and Duncan Smith are pioneering major reforms under Cameron
Yesterday two important bills achieved royal assent;
- One was the Education Bill. It contained new powers for schools to discipline pupils; it made it easier to establish Academies and Free Schools; it overhauled Ofsted procedures; it abolished parts of the education quangocracy. It's the latest stage in a dramatic period for British education that includes the extension of academies; the free schools revolution; the introduction of the EBacc; the pupil premium; the toughening of exam standards; Ken Baker's technical colleges; John Hayes' apprenticeships; or new money for higher education.
- The second Bill was the Localism Bill. The huge scope of this legislation is reported today on the local government blog but let us for a moment dwell on the new general power of competence. As of today local councils are no longer puppets of the centre. They are now free to do anything they choose to do, within the law. Anything. They can deliver new kinds of services, build new institutions and work freely with other councils or companies or voluntary groups to serve their communities. This may be a slow burn reform but slowly, steadily and surely we will see innovation across local government and that innovation will produce emulation and eventually nationwide progress.
The third great area of reform that I would highlight is in the area of welfare. The Universal Credit is Iain Duncan Smith's flagship reform. This reform will finally ensure that work always pays. But there's also the work that Chris Grayling is doing to overhaul the work programme and that Steve Webb is doing on pensions. Over the next five years the greatest ever savings will be made in the welfare bills. Caps to housing and other benefits will start to ensure a fair deal for the working poor. As Liz Truss tweeted yesterday some people are earning £17,000 a year but paying out £3,000 in petrol – and some households are receiving much more than this from the welfare state. That is unjust and corrosive of any sense of social contract. Within the Duncan Smith reforms we will see first steps towards eliminating the immoral benefits penalty that discourages poorer parents from living together. We will also see more resources directed to early intervention and family programmes that address the root causes of Britain's social problems.
These Cameroonian reforms (and I could mention others but I've done enough listing) are, like Major's reforms, being drowned out by European affairs. Tory activists are rightly unhappy at the acceptance of Labour's high tax inheritance. They are unhappy that there is no big narrative other than the idea of Cameron the personality; the idea of coming together in Coalition in the national interest; and, of course, Cuts. There has been no attempt to define a 'majority conservatism'. In other echoes of the Major years Downing Street is dysfunctional; a large number of backbenchers are rebelling; the Cabinet is very centrist; the right-wing press is constantly unhappy; Ken Clarke is back.
Cameron apparently takes a lot of advice from Major and that's understandable. Unlike Lady Thatcher, John Major is in good health and is in a unique place to advise on the pressures of the office. There is also a sense that Cameron is completing the work that Major began. John Gummer, Major's Environment Secretary, was worshipped by the green groups. Major began to end the cold war between the Tories and gay communities with a Downing Street meeting with Ian McKellen. Major came to oppose ID cards in a first stirring of civil libertarianism in the modern party. His overall desire for a nation "at ease with itself" heralded Cameron's kinder, greener and more liberal conservatism. The voices are very different but the public tone is the same.
Unlike Major, Cameron is not a worrier. He oozes self-confidence. He faces a weak rather than a strong Labour leader. His parliamentary party is fresh while Major's was tired. But if Cameron is to be compared to any modern Tory leader it has to be Major.