U-turn if you want to

Adam Evans unpacks the travails of a Prime Minister whose concessions only feeds the zealotry of his Eurosceptic right

In 2005 a young, fresh faced, leadership contender running on a platform to modernise the Conservative Party famously described himself as the “heir to Blair”. Yet eight years on and three years into his Premiership, every day sees David Cameron looking less and less like the man he wished to emulate. Instead, with a track record of more U-turns than a badly plumbed house, Cameron increasingly invites comparisons with another Prime Minister whose reign has gone down in ignominy.

Edward Heath’s Premiership in the early 1970s has gone into the political lexicon as a synonym for U-turns and political cowardice, most notably for his abandonment of the radical free market economic agenda that the Conservative Party pledged in its shock success in the 1970 General Election. The collapse of this programme led to further economic, industrial and electoral failure, with Heath relegated to a list of Prime Ministerial ‘luminaries’ that includes Ramsay MacDonald and Anthony Eden. Arguably it also inspired Margaret Thatcher’s most famous party conference line “The lady’s not for turning.”

Fast forward from the electoral defeat of Heath’s Government – albeit winning the popular vote, if not seats in the February 1974 election – and we find a Prime Minister in an increasingly similar state of political torpor. Unlike Heath’s external agenda of economic modernisation, Cameron’s leadership platform was built on internal, party reform, following the failure of efforts to revive Thatcherism in the 2001 and 2005 General Elections.

Carefully stage managed photo opportunities with huskies, the ‘A-List’ aimed at increasing the number of women, ethnic minorities and the odd celebrity   selected as Conservative Parliamentary candidates (Adam Rickett), the abandonment of support for Grammar Schools, and attempts to embrace environmentalism and overseas aid. All were pivotal elements of an effort to detoxify the Conservatives, which had been branded “the nasty party” by Theresa May.

Conservative modernisation has always been a contested project. It has never commanded the hearts and souls of the party faithful and has always been contingent on electoral success. Remember, for example, the whispering about Cameron’s leadership during the almost mythical early days of Brown’s Premiership when polls suggested that Brown would win a snap election. Modernisation was only saved, for a time, by the chutzpah of George Osborne who brazenly promised to raise the level at which inheritance tax would be levied from £300,000 to £1 million at the Conservative’s conference in October 2007. Notably, this pledge was abandoned in February this year.

The Conservative failure to win outright in 2010, coupled with the rise of UKIP, has led Cameron to a growing penchant for retreat. Indeed, the controversial A-List was scrapped before the 2010 election even took place, falling victim to the wrath of several constituency associations, the disdain of right wing tabloids and perhaps also a lack of resolve by Cameron himself.

While the 2012 budget was arguably the coup d’farce of the current Government’s track record of policy about turns – who can forget the pasty or caravan tax debacles? Even the most pronounced shibboleths of Cameronism – environmentalism and international development aid – have not been spared. While the Department for International Development has (controversially) had its budget ring-fenced (alongside the NHS) at the expense of the rest of Whitehall, Cameron has backtracked on a pledge, present in both the Conservative Party manifesto and the Coalition Agreement, to spend 0.7 per cent of GNP on foreign aid.

Meanwhile, a farcical situation has developed around the party’s environmental and energy policy. The man who in Opposition used the slogan “vote Blue, go Green” and pledged the “greenest Government ever,” has rapidly been forced into a series of policy reversals that have created chaos and confusion. The Conservatives have moved from embracing renewables to being sceptical of wind turbines and supporting nuclear energy. This comedy of errors was most vividly expressed by John Hayes’ brief, yet illuminating Ministerial role in the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

However, as the past week has mercilessly shown, it is that old reliable nemesis, Europe, that shows how weak Cameron’s leadership has become. The man who once prioritised getting the party to “stop banging on about Europe” has, through a sheer lack of resolve, succeeded in pouring yet more fuel on the Eurosceptic fire. Faced with an increasingly rebellious Eurosceptic Parliamentary Party, Cameron pledged a renegotiation of British Membership followed by an in/out referendum in 2017 if he is elected in 2015. It was an intervention that completely misunderstood the zealotry of the Conservative Eurosceptics. They believe Cameron betrayed them by failing to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, despite it having been signed under the previous Labour Government and already in effect.

With the rise of UKIP in the polls and their success at the local elections, this policy miscalculation has been brought home to roost.  Not only are the usual suspects even more agitated than ever, but the increasing number of Tory grandees declaring that Cameron’s renegotiation is doomed to failure and the willingness of senior Cabinet Members to declare their willingness to leave the EU has completely undermined Cameron’s position

In all of this he has been his own worst enemy. Last week he was forced into the bizarre spectacle of first allowing his own MPs a free vote on a motion criticising his Government’s Queen Speech and then, only days after the Speech was delivered, capitulating to Tory rebels by publishing a draft Referendum Bill. This humiliating spectacle invoked memories of the turmoil Major’s Government faced over Maastricht.

If Cameron’s track record of U-turns inspires memories of the early 1970s, the European case shows that this is less than fair to Edward Heath’s record. While Cameron has presided over the evisceration of European policy, at least Heath held his ground against his critics to secure his most lasting legacy, securing Britain’s membership of the Common Market. Indeed, while Heath may have fallen victim to the unions and the geo-political vicissitudes of the global economy, Cameron’s U-turns have resulted from a failure of leadership over an increasingly restless Conservative Party.

Unable to satiate right wingers who themselves misunderstand the rise of UKIP, instead projecting their political aspirations and agenda on UKIP voters, Cameron’s policy changes have merely inspired further disobedience and disorder, with even the 2020 Group of Modernisers pleading for  “true leadership” from the Prime Minister.  Cameron remains unloved, uncertain, and unwilling to defend himself and his programme. While he may have wished to be the “heir to Blair,” his record leaves him struggling even to be “heir to Heath”.

Adam Evans is a Doctoral Student at the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

15 thoughts on “U-turn if you want to

  1. I thought that the IWA concentrated on Welsh politics. If it is going to be a mouthpiece for the London Labour Party it will lose all credibility.

  2. Cameron’s problem is that he surrounds himself with people who have little or no experience of street-politics, and who would rather sit in offices talking about ‘strategy’ than listen to actual voters. They get their idea of politics from television, notably ‘The West Wing.’ They bought the Clintonian idea of ‘triangulation’ wholesale, and believe that their core vote will look after itself while they focus on picking votes off the centre. This is why the Conservatives lost the 2010 election – a gift of an election if ever there was one, but they still managed to lose it. The fact is that the whole left-right thing is about twenty years out of date. Voters are far more complex. True, the main parties can still rely on a significant but declining core vote – say 20% each for the Conservatives and Labour and 10% for the Liberals, with considerable local variation – which is essentially tribal and will vote for the proverbial donkey if painted in the relevant party colours, but younger voters are more likely to see voting in much the same way that they see consumer choice. Floating voters in particular should be viewed not as centrists but as sophisticated pragmatists. So Cameron’s lunge at the centre was doomed from the start: Guardian-readers were never going to vote for him anyway. Since then, Cameron has alienated key demographics who are not part of the Conservative tribal core but who are generally inclined to vote Conservative: small business owners, libertarians, and social conservatives feel particularly unloved. The rise of UKIP is only a symptom of that, so concessions on Europe will make little difference. Cameron’s desk-jockeys tell him that these people will still vote Conservative in the General Election out of fear that Labour will be worse: once again, they have no grasp of the feeling among the people whose support they need to win. There is a ‘plague on both your houses’ mood in the air. Labour will probably win by default, but there is no-one outside the Labour party seems particularly elated at the prospect. So it is in theory not too late for Cameron to do what he failed to do in 2010: he needs to come up with convincing answer to the question, ‘How will you make my life better – including my family and my local community – if I vote for you?’ His greatest advantage is that most people actually want him to come up with an answer to that question – they want a successful leader, and they do not mind if it is him. His greatest disadvantage is that he is surrounded by people with no real experience or understanding of the people asking the question.

  3. Bullingdon Club Rules OK?

    Was there ever going to be a way back from this perception? Worse, the belief that these Eton and Oxford Toffs don’t understand the real world we live in has been confirmed repeatedly. It’s not that Cameron et al don’t have the relevant policies for me and my family… it’s just that they neither know my family nor care how we live, thrive or die.

    Good riddance.

  4. With respect, the issue is not Cameron’s formative years or education. Indeed, the fact that education can be a subject of criticism rather than respect is a singularly British failing. The real problem is that all three of the main British party leaders – who look and sound strangely similar – are members of the same narrow-minded, inward-looking London-centric political class. The very existence of such a class is incompatible with democracy. If Cameron, or any of the three, can move outside his comfort zone, he could still win and he would then deserve to do so.

  5. With even more respect the clue was in the Bullingdon Club reference. It is the perception of Cameron and Co. that is the point not their actual education although I suppose that Cameron would not have gained a great insight into your average Brit from his upbringing and education.

  6. Cameron, the Tories and UKIP are increasingly irrelevant to Wales. They are part of Wales’ problem, certainly not the solution.

    @jon jones For once we can agree on something.

    @John Winterson Richards wrote: “…all three of the main British party leaders – who look and sound strangely similar – are members of the same narrow-minded, inward-looking London-centric political class. The very existence of such a class is incompatible with democracy”

    How do you think this situation has come about, and how can it be addressed (1) in UK terms and (2) as far as Wales is concerned?

    If you do have solutions, how likely is it so you think that they will be implemented?

  7. In answer to Dave’s question, the laziness of the mainstream media and current electoral law both favour big political parties – and centralised leadership within those parties. The proverbial ‘John Smith’ or ‘Dai Jones’ off the street stand little chance of being elected to responsible office without approval by the relevant party authorities. So we retain the forms of democracy but not the substance. In the specific context of the Welsh Assembly, the peculiar mathematics and prejudices of Welsh politics ensure that it is practically impossible to have an administration that is not Labour-led. We are not legally a one-party state but one party effectively has a permanent veto on everything, like post-War Italy. In a thought-provoking Patrick Hannan Memorial Lecture, published on this site, Professor Ian Hargreaves quotes Labour Assemblyman Andrew Davies admitting honestly that Wales is a “captive state”. He also quotes journalist Anne Applebaum on the need for an “alternative elite” – a ghastly expression but the concept it describes is essential to democracy. A fully functioning democracy demands a proper Opposition, challenging the Establishment, exposing its failings ruthlessly, and suggesting new alternatives. That is simply not happening in the cosy little clubs of Westminster and Cardiff Bay, nor is that likely to change as things stand.

  8. @John

    I agree that, at least in a UK context, things are unlikely to change. I put the problem down to a constitutional anomaly – parliamentary sovereignty – giving Westminster politicians all the power, and little responsibility. They are the gatekeepers of the system, and it is in their interests to keep it as it is, including the voting system which guarantees them, both parties, alternately, perpetual power. That is why the parties have become so similar, apart from the rhetoric. I fear England will be cursed with it forever. It is why both parties fight shy of radical constitutional reform, such as addressing the West Lothian question by creating a parliament for England. Federalism would entail the end of parliamentary sovereignty, hence it is anathema to the unionist parties, the destruction of their cosy system.

    Wales and Scotland potentially have a get out of jail free card, at least from the curse of parliamentary sovereignty, if their peoples have enough sense to use it in a simple referendum vote. Of course, that wouldn’t guarantee that all their problems would be solved overnight, or that they wouldn’t face other problems. However, it would give them the power to address the serious issues that confront them, which Westminster has consistently failed to or not attempted to address.

    Due to an accident, or series of accidents, of history, a constitutional system has arisen firstly in England, and now applies via Westminster to the entire UK, which acts to the disadvantage of the people. It has created a governing elite – an elective dictatorship. Under it, Wales and Scotland’s futures are bleak indeed. Much of Wales is already on a par with Romania and Bulgaria, having been overtaken in the prosperity stakes by Poland and Slovakia. Unless it is addressed, the UK’s decline will continue and its eventual break-up will be assured. If the Scots don’t vote Yes in 2014, they will at a later date. Despite the published opinion polls on the referendum so far, I predict that the result will be very close indeed.

  9. The problem is not with the theory of parliamentary sovereignty but with its absence in practice in both Westminster and Cardiff Bay. The great advantage of the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty in principle is that power and responsibility are concentrated visibly in the same place, the legislature, so that there should be accountability. The great danger for democracy is the separation of power and responsibility. In London, the Commons has become a rubber stamp for what is decided by the leadership or leaderships of the party or parties in office – which itself can depend as much on what is decided in a smoke-free room as on the actual votes of the people, as happened in 2010. In Cardiff, there is power – albeit limited power – without responsibility, since, due to the mathematics of the Assembly itself, and the way most voters follow the mainstream media in treating local elections as referenda on national politics, there is no practical prospect of the dominant party being held properly accountable. So a political class every bit as insular as Westminster’s has developed in Cardiff Bay. The traditional Nationalist position, no longer held in its purest form even by Plaid, of transferring parliamentary sovereignty wholesale from London to Cardiff might at least have the merit of putting power and responsibility in one place again, but would the Welsh people rise to their new responsibilities or would it simply be empowering a second-division provincial version of London’s political class? Recent history is not encouraging on that point.

  10. @John

    By parliamentary sovereignty, I mean the doctrine as developed by the likes of A.V. Dicey in the nineteenth century, where, theoretically at least, sovereignty is vested in the abstract concept of ‘the Crown in Parliament’. That is, in the absence of a written constitution which lays down the limits and boundaries of the powers of the legislature and the executive, the powers of parliament, and the executive which derives its authority from it, is potentially unlimited. Of course, in practice, that sovereignty is limited somewhat, but the constraints on it are nebulous. Hence the Westminster Parliament tends to be a law unto itself. That does not make for good governance. I don’t think many would claim that we have had good or effective government from Westminster in the last half century, at least. The mess that the UK is in today should be testimony of that.

    I don’t believe that Plaid’s policy for an independent legislature for Wales would include importing the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. Most democracies, indeed the vast majority, if not all, other than the UK, have written constitutions vesting sovereignty in the people. Even though parliamentary sovereignty exists to a greater or lesser extent in a small handful of states, such as New Zealand and Finland, it is in a more circumscribed form.

    An independent Wales, as I’m sure will be the case in Scotland, and as is the case in Ireland, would adopt a written constitution in which sovereignty will be vested in the people, and the powers of the various institutions of state, the legislature, executive, and judiciary defined. The constitution, including the rights of the citizens, would be entrenched and protected by special measures from arbitrary repeal or amendment. Unlike the UK, a supreme court would be empowered to strike down unconstitutional legislation. A system of proportional representation would be adopted, ensuring that due weight be given to the range of political opinion in the country. Such a system would lessen the development of a political elite and be far more democratic. I believe it would be more efficient too. I don’t want politicians, of any complexion, being ‘sovereign’.

  11. Sorry to go on at length again but it is such a pleasure to find oneself in a forum where someone even knows who Dicey is. It is a pity both sides in 1997 were not more familiar with his writings on Irish Home Rule: he pinpointed many of the difficulties we see in Wales today, and showed how Home Rule could not last but could only be a stepping stone, for better or for worse, to full independence. Speaking as someone who was very keen as a law student 30 years ago on written constitutions, bills of rights, etc – writing them is great fun for law students – it is only practical experience and reading a lot of history that brings a full appreciation of the merits of the United Kingdom’s organic unwritten constitution. It has proved wonderfully adaptable in practice, as well as a vehicle for ever-expanding civil liberties – or at least it was until Blair’s ignorant meddling. Consider this: the last 300 years have indeed seen tumultuous times, and all sorts of governments, good, bad, and mediocre, but the UK, practically alone among great powers, has avoided civil war and revolution since 1688, and has remained constant in seeking to resolve deep divisions by peaceful, constitutional procedures. This is a great achievement, especially when one compares it with the alternative: in the same period, France, our closest neighbour, has gone through five Republics, three Monarchies, two Empires, and numerous coups or attempted coups; the United States, supposedly our closest neighbour ideologically, fought the bloodiest war in her history against her own citizens precisely because her written constitution was badly written! So while the constitution of an independent or autonomous Wales, being based on an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament, will necessarily be written, that is not necessarily a point in favour of independence or autonomy. Nor is the probability that any such constitution will invest sovereignty in ‘the people.’ Like ‘liberty’ and ‘justice,’ the concept of ‘the people’ sounds noble but can be rather nebulous in practice and this has been used by those who claim, rightly or wrongly, to speak for ‘the people’ as a pretext for some of the worst crimes of history. This is not to say the machine-politicians of Cardiff Bay intend such crimes, but a 300-year tradition seems a stronger defence against possible abuses than a piece of paper drafted by an obscure committee.

  12. @john

    One can view a ‘300 year tradition’ in more than one way. It covers most of Britain’s imperial history, much of which is not to be admired, or something of which we can be proud, when considering many of the vile acts perpetrated in its name (I could list them if necessary – it would be a long one) and the problems the modern world has inherited because of it, not the least of which is Palestine.

    As for civil liberties, (and yes, I’m aware of the vital distinction between rights and liberties) although the UK was the first to ratify the European Convention on Human Rights in 1951, it was the last to incorporate it into the British legal system via the Human Rights Aact in 1998. Now the Tories seem to be of a mind to withdraw from it, as did the former Greek junta in 1969. Until 2000 when the Human Rights Aact came into force, the rights of a citizen/subject of the UK were few and far between, and often people had to go to Strasbourg to enforce them at great expense and delay.

    I think there isn’t going to be a meeting of minds on this, and to be fair (to others) it isn’t a suitable forum for an extended discussion. Where you, as a conservative and unionist, see the merits of an ‘organic unwritten constitution’, I, as a radical nationalist, see an archaic, haphazard, disjointed and dysfunctional political system which has left us, among other things, with a legislature consisting of an unelected upper chamber containing by virtue of office twenty-six bishops of the Church of England and ninety-two hereditary peers. A century or more has passed, yet its transformation into a democratic body is yet to happen, and there doesn’t seem any prospect of it happening any time soon. There are other historical points that you raise with which I would dearly like to take issue, but it would be impractical here. So I’ll have to leave it at that and reminisce my days as a law student.

  13. Dave, tempting as it is to go into detail on why almost every word of your last post is in error, you are quite right that it would not be fair to others to turn this thread into an extended dialogue, and we have already wandered off the original topic. Meanwhile, thank you for a stimulating discussion: it is always good to listen to views contrary to one’s own when they are informed and well-expressed.

  14. @JWR
    Your critique of written constitutions, finding bad consequences from some time in the past, is , today, somewhat past its sell-by date. I accept that those bold enough to write the first constutions (eg US, France) did make a few mistakes as one would expect in any prototype or early version of anything. But, taking advantage of previous errors, later written constutions have not repeated those mistakes. Today a democratic constution written in plain language and accessible to all, can be seen as a prerequisite of a modern democracy. The absence of such a written constitution in GB, along with the absence of an elected head of state, and an elected upper chamber leaves GB a sorry excuse for a C21st democracy.

  15. The suggestion that somehow the ‘powers that be’ are getting better at writing constitutions is rather contradicted by the speed at which recent written constitutions are replaced, superseded, substantially amended, or simply rejected. This article – http://www.law.uchicago.edu/alumni/magazine/lifespan – gives some fascinating statistics. Of course one cannot collect final statistics on the most recent constitutions, but there is strong reason to suspect that few, if any, are destined to last anything like 300 years. One might even cite Wales as an example: if we have a current ‘written constitution of Wales’ it is the Government of Wales Act, and it is hardly to the credit of the 1998 Act that it was replaced so swiftly by the 2006 Act – which looks as if it will be replaced in turn before too long.

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