Everything traces back, in the end, to David Cameron’s fundamental failure as a political leader. He either doesn’t really know what he wants, or he does know what he wants, but thinks he can’t sell that, so tells us he’s selling something completely different.
In opposition, the Prime Minister wanted us to believe he was a new sort of Conservative, one at ease with modern Britain, committed to “progressive ends through Conservative means”. A one-nation, liberal, Tory with a greenish tinge, who had the centrist instincts of a Blair, but none of the showy, compulsive activity and UnBritish emphasis on froth of the New Labour era.
This new Tory Centrism is what he wanted to portray, but it didn’t always seem to be what he wanted to do. When the Crash came, the centrism and the moderation went out of the window, to be replaced by talk of an urgent National mission to restore discipline, cut down on excessive spending, clamp down on welfare spend. Not, contradictory exactly, but sufficiently distant from the earlier model that it required the explanatory device of the “Big Society” to reconcile these two political stresses.
Of course, the Big Society was a transparent marketing ploy, and served only to distract attention from the plans for spending reductions, freezes and service cuts. Despite not exactly being a bad idea, (just an unoriginal one treated as if it were divine revelation) the Big Society wasn’t successful as a political message, and in Government has served merely as a curled and decaying fig leaf, whose presence emphasises only the smallness of the assets the Government seeks to conceal.
As a result, Cameron rarely seemed convincing in the General Election campaign. Simultaneously Radical (I’ll cut the Deficit) and moderately re-assuring (..but not the NHS) he struggled to assert how the New Tory project he founded would be different from the old hard-faced Tory party he sought to abandon. Oddly, he was better on peripheral issues (The aid budget, or constitutional tinkering at a local level) but even here, there always seemed something patched together and insubstantial about the Cameronian project.
Perhaps no surprise then, that the electorate decided to reward David Cameron with only a share of the spoils, not the inheritance entire.
In the beginning, this played to Cameron’s strengths. He could use his slight indefinability to make a bold proposal the the Liberal Democrats that was both less and more than it seemed (they had to commit to a Conservative Economic policy immediately, the Tories had to take several risks at a later date). The Liberals could in turn be used to constrain those in the Right of the Conservative party who had never been comfortable with Tory modernisation. Cameron could run the kind of Government he seemed to have suggested he wanted, if he chose.
He did not so choose. He failed to choose. He is, today, still failing to choose. We ended up with a government that is at one and the same time for radical deregulation (except not), for increased investment and infrastructure spend (in some form, at a later date), for lower taxes on the rich, for higher taxes on the rich, for taking people out of tax, for increasing regressive taxes, for NHS reform, against NHS reform, for reform of the constitution but refusing to deliver it, Even on Europe, I cannot tell you exactly what the British attitude is now to the Treaty we tried to veto in December.
Some of this is the natural consequence of Coalition, naturally, but the Tories are in Coalition precisely because they did not really know what they wanted, so it seems an appropriate punishment to be constantly reminded of their own infirmity of original purpose. What is often forgotten by the tory right is that the reason the Liberal Democrats were able to enter into coalition with the Conservatives is that they bought, in good enough faith, the idea of a Liberal centrist Conservative party. Little surprise they sometime balk at swallowing the reality of something far less certain and far less appealing.
The one exception, of course, is the plan to reduce the deficit. Here the government has placed all the direction it possesses, and it isn’t yet working. From the left, we say the cuts are too far, too fast. From the Right, the radicals say what is needed is tax cuts to compliment austerity. Stuck in the middle, George Osborne appears to have become a reverse Goldilocks.
And so the winding path leads us here. A reshuffle designed to appease those who Cameron once seemed to want to sweep out of the way, but a reshuffle that cannot even achieve that, because the Prime Minister is so hamstrung he cannot even sack Iain Duncan Smith, Ken Clarke or Sayeeda Warsi. Instead we get, at cabinet level, a bonfire of the irrelevancies, whether those who have done their work or never had any work to begin with. At a junior level, we have the arrival of the bright young right wing Tories, who will soon find that they are circumscribed, limited and frustrated in their ideological goals by both the fact of coalition and the reality of confused leadership.
Here is the paradox. It is not clear whether Cameron believes in the need for a shift to the right among Conservative ministers, whether he have sought such a path if he was not in coalition, or whether he even regards the matter as an ideological or philosophical issue. Yet he has, in half hearted, provisional fashion, done it anyway. In doing so, he simultaneously gives the concept of a shift to the right life, and dooms the reality of it to death.
This is a very curious government. David Cameron is a very curious sort of Prime Minister.