Magazine article The Spectator

It's Time for Cameron to Choose Which Direction He's Headed

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Time for Cameron to Choose Which Direction He's Headed

Article excerpt

The PM signals left while turning right. But now it's time for clarity


It is not mere hyperbole to say that the period between the Conservative party conference and the general election will be momentous. The next election will decide whether we have a chance to vote on Britain's relationship with the European Union. Both Labour and the Conservative party will try to tackle 'the English question' -- together with other great issues raised by the Scottish referendum. It is vital that the right David Cameron turns up to these debates.

Even more than most politicians, Cameron is a man of two halves: steady-as-she-goes pragmatist and radical reformer. On the face of it, he fits firmly into the tradition of squirearchical managerialism. No modern Tory leader has been so good at looking calm under fire, so keen on work-life balance, so skilful at surrounding himself with friends, as if government was a boring village fête that you simply have to attend, so you might as well have some chums around while you are at it. There is something of Arthur Balfour, who never woke up before 11 a.m., perfected his swing on a private golf course, and said 'nothing matters very much and few things matter at all'.

At times this insouciance can be effective -- most notably after his election near-victory in 2010, when Cameron cut the deal that got him into No. 10. At times it is lazy. Over Scotland, Cameron lurched from complacency to panic without finding time for reflection. Cameron, the quintessential bright PPE undergraduate, who puts off doing his essay to the last moment and then stuffs in anything that he thinks will keep his tutor happy. Government by essay crisis has replaced government by sofa.

Yet there is a more radical Cameron. The insouciance is partly an act. He is a political professional who can hold his own with mandarins or Eurocrats. The chum-ocracy includes some serious thinkers such as George Osborne, in the cabinet, and Christopher Lockwood, in the policy unit. Remember how Cameron forced his way to the leadership: the no-notes speeches, the green agenda and his support for gay marriage. All were huge gambles at the time.

A few months ago it looked as if Cameron had decided to fight the election by presenting himself as a safe pair of hands. He sidelined the most energetic reformer in his cabinet, his old friend Michael Gove, and replaced him with the eminently forgettable Nicky Morgan. This strategy was as simple as it was unexciting: bet on a recovering economy and an unappealing opposition leader to bring home the votes.

But the Scottish referendum has made steady-as-she-goes more difficult, placing Britain in the grip of a fiery debate about the constitution. Should Scottish MPs be allowed to vote on purely English affairs when English MPs cannot vote on purely Scottish ones? Why don't Northumberland and Cornwall deserve the same rights as Wales and Scotland? Cameron cleverly presented the 'no' campaign's victory as a vote to renew the Union. But the fact that 45 per cent of Scotland's population voted to abandon one of the world's oldest and most successful countries has sent an electric shock through the establishment.

Cameron may try to wait out the storm -- most people's desire to answer the West Lothian question fades with time. But the problem with default passivity is that it just delays the inevitable: even if these issues fade from the news in coming weeks, they will be back again, probably with a vengeance.

In fact, Cameron now faces a glorious opportunity, if only he'd seize it. He has a chance to reshape British politics just as fundamentally as Mrs Thatcher did -- but only if he thinks and acts like a statesman rather than a panicked undergraduate. He needs to take the inchoate anger at the political system and turn it into a movement to reinvent Britain's bloated political regime.

The problem which haunts Britain is not a problem of representation. …

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