Magazine article The Spectator

Is Cameron Headed for a Fall?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is Cameron Headed for a Fall?

Article excerpt

Why the Conservatives' new confidence may be misplaced

David Cameron exudes a worrying confidence these days. He strolls through the corridors of the Palace of Westminster with the air of a man already thinking of victory at the next election. His head is tilted slightly skywards, as if already enjoying the sunlit uplands of victory in 2015. But this confidence is misguided, even dangerous, as some of those closest to him are well aware.

They, by contrast, do not look relaxed at all. They look anxious, pained, bundles of nervous energy.

Their fear is that the Prime Minister is on the brink of making mistakes that could endanger his premiership:

that he is about to sabotage his own reform agenda.

The story of Cameron's leadership to date has been one of laidback calm interrupted by periods of productive anxiety. As one Tory ruefully puts it, 'What you have to understand is that the Tory party now only has two modes: panic and complacency.'

Under pressure, Cameron has repeatedly rescued himself and his party - sometimes from near-certain political death. But when all seems well, he relaxes. The momentum that he had gained is lost through inaction.

Small difficulties are allowed to mutate into big problems. Sure enough, the seeds are now being sown for the next - and greatest - panic of all.

The Prime Minister is in danger of blowing a once-in-a-premiership chance to change Britain. He seems increasingly to think that he can leave important reforms until his second term. But here's the catch with that plan - if he does not act now, if he doesn't show the country what he's made of, he might not have a second term.

The most alarming example of Cameron's dangerous complacency is in NHS reform.

The Prime Minister personally launched the plans earlier this year, and the legislation easily passed its first and second reading in the House of Commons. But having come so far, he has now ordered a 'pause' to the coalition's reforms and is promising 'substantial' changes to them.

What makes Cameron's decision to back away from the reforms all the more alarming is that he only recently seemed so up for the fight. When in March, the British Medical Association criticised the reforms, he dismissed this as the predictable whining of just another trade union. His aides reassured people that unlike the forest sell-off and several other minor questions, the PM was not for turning on this issue. But less than a month later, the Prime Minister was, in his most emollient tone, launching a 'listening exercise' with the aim of appeasing the BMA and other interest groups. The Prime Minister had blinked.

But Cameron's change of heart on health is not an isolated incident. It is part of a general pattern of Cameron giving up on public service reform. In the eyes of the reformers, there are two villains behind Cameron's change of pace, Andrew Cooper and the Liberal Democrats.

Cooper is the pollster who has been hired as the Prime Minister's director of political strategy. His polls are now king in Downing Street and he is the man with the Prime Minister's ear. Cooper's numbers are setting the agenda and explain why Cameron started the local election campaign with a speech on immigration and why he will give his first big address on crime shortly. (Oddly enough, before Cooper's arrival the Cameron operation didn't do much market research at all. ) But the reformers complain that these polls assume that public opinion can't be moved. So when new policies are tested, the results show what people feel about them now, not what they might feel once the changes have actually been introduced. Until a situation reaches crisis point, these polls will always favour doing nothing. In short, the data is serving to reinforce government's inevitable bias towards the status quo.

The polling on health illustrates this point. 'A political catastrophe' was Cooper's three-word verdict on the NHS reforms. …

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