The Breakneck Coalition: The Ten Moments That Define David Cameron's First Three Months in Power and Show the Kind of Leader He Will Be

By Montgomerie, Tim | New Statesman (1996), August 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Breakneck Coalition: The Ten Moments That Define David Cameron's First Three Months in Power and Show the Kind of Leader He Will Be


Montgomerie, Tim, New Statesman (1996)


1 Cameron lost the loyalty of the right when he didn't win the general election outright

Conservative MPs have worried about Team David Cameron's electoral strategy ever since he became leader in 2005. Before the election, they were especially concerned about the lack of a clear message and about George Osborne's unpopularity. They could not understand why the Liberal Democrats were given equal status in the televised debates. They told Conservative HQ that the "big society" message needed to be more "doorstep-friendly". The Tory leadership's answer to every criticism of strategy was to look at the opinion polls. "Trust us, we're more than 10 per cent ahead," they said.

By election time, the lead shrank and a majority never came. Cameron's failure to win an election against a divided government, presiding over a deep recession and led by a prime minister whom 100 political academics have just rated the third worst since 1945, means he will never again get the same benefit of the doubt from Conservative members.

He compounded his problems with the party by trying to end backbench control of the 1922 Committee. The committee had been a thorn in John Major's side throughout the early 1990s; the former premier apparently advised Cameron to neutralise it. Cameron was forced to retreat in the face of anger and, in protest, MPs voted for the independent-minded Graham Brady as their new shop steward.

A great leader needs a wide range of qualities. We know that Cameron is brave, media-friendly and intelligent. But party management is also an important skill. Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and even Gordon Brown were good at the courtesies that are essential, if not sufficient, for harmonious parties. When she'd completed her red boxes, late into the night, Thatcher turned to a list of people who, at her insistence, her advisers had recommended deserved a handwritten note.

Cameron needs to improve this aspect of his leadership style. Few if any of the 37 Tory front-benchers who did not make it into government because of the election result received any communication from him. Three months into his premiership, he hasn't spoken even one word to some of the MPs he didn't make ministers.

2 Cameron seized victory from defeat with his bold coalition deal

If failing to win a majority was his great failure, his boldness on the day after the election was Cameron's great success. He saw the potential in a "change alliance" of the kind that the blogger Guido Fawkes and the think tank head Mark Littlewood had long advocated. He made a "comprehensive offer" to Nick Clegg to form a coalition government that has the potential to change British politics for ever.

Appointing a Liberal Democrat to nearly every Whitehall department did two things, one Downing Street insider told me: "It bound Clegg to every tough decision but it also minimised the number of Liberal Democrats who would be outside the tent, pissing in."

The emphasis he had placed as Tory leader on gay rights, civil liberties, climate change and fighting poverty may not have won the election, but it made the Con-Lib deal possible. The offer of a referendum on AV turned the deal from possible to done. Controversy still surrounds the events leading up to that event. Cameron led Tory MPs to believe that he needed to match an offer that Labour had made. Those MPs have subsequently learned that Labour made no such offer. At best, Team Cameron can be accused of not asking enough questions to establish the truth and, at worst, of misleading Conservative backbenchers.

3 In the handling of David Laws's resignation, the two parties bonded

Few early events in the government did more to build trust between the blue and yellow halves of the coalition than the handling of the revelations about David Laws's living arrangements. Over the 24 hours from when the story broke to when the then chief secretary to the Treasury resigned, it was impossible to know which aides were Tory and which were Liberal Democrats.

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