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.

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