Cameron’s problems are in the past, not the future

Comment

Few pursuits have as much a tendency to rely on hindsight as political journalism; that wonderful ability for chroniclers, biographers and opinion-formers to impose grand arcs of narrative over events that felt messy, gritty, unplanned and chaotic; to make retrospectively a motorway from a winding, muddy track. The structural break for our latest story-telling amnesia appears to be election night in early May. Scarcely had the dust settled on that exit poll before pundits talked breathlessly about the inevitability of the victory, the art and power of the Cameron-Osborne duo, and the waste of the Miliband years. Yet cast your mind back over the last five years: the omnishambles budget, Leveson, the credit rating downgrade, the slow collapse of Libya, the constant trailing in the polls, the panics over Scotland and Europe, UKIP and Farage – did it really always feel inevitable?

But election night really was “the sweetest victory” for Cameron. The first Tory majority for nearly two decades; Balls, Miliband, Farage, Reckless, Clegg – all Cameron’s opponents for the last five years – defenestrated from party leadership or unseated. Possibly the sweetest tang for a man who relishes common sense and pragmatism above all else was the two fingers the British people had put up to the intelligentsia, the commentators and pollsters poring over hung-parliament cabinet manuals and decrying the Crosby-led campaign for relying on messages of security and stability. Back in 2014, Matthew D’Ancona caricatured Cameron as the village cricketer, not yet willing to pull stumps: if he was, he had just hit all his opponents for six. Raising his bat from the other end was perhaps the only man to whom the victory meant more: George Osborne, Cameron’s most loyal and reliable innings partner.

Osborne is grossly misunderstood. He is not a Thatcherite; any insiders’ account of austerity makes it clear that it was not a subtle excuse under which to cloak state-shrinkage, but rather a swift reaction to the stark state of the public finances in 2009. Neither Cameron nor his chancellor went into politics in order to act as a fiscal plumber; their hand was forced on the retrenchment of public expenditure by the gross largesse of the final two Brown budgets. Would Thatcher have even entertained the possibility of the Northern Powerhouse? Or the Living Wage?

Nor is it fair to dismiss Osborne merely as an effective political tactician: the energy and innovation flowing out of the Treasury in both this and the last parliament is indicative of a chancellor who wants to remake the state and the nation, not just cut its overdraft. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that Osborne is the ultimate tactician of this generation of politicians. Just look at the other pretenders to Cameron’s throne. One by one they fell by the wayside: first Fox, Gove, then May, Grayling, and Hunt. The list goes on. Those who have broken cover so far look laughably lightweight in contrast to the Chancellor’s political and intellectual hegemony – Nicky Morgan at Number 10, anyone? The commentariat shoot from the hip about the possibility of Prime Minister Javid: this would be about as likely as Balls challenging Brown for Blair’s fallen crown in 2007. Even the erstwhile heir apparent, Boris Johnson, now looks weak and irrelevant: he may have had all the jokes at party conference, but the great and good who are chuckling at the front of the hall are all looking for Osborne’s cue. It was telling that Cameron felt able to lavish such praise on Boris in his conference speech: the London Mayor is no longer a threat to the Prime Minister, no longer the prince over the Thames. As one cabinet minister recently observed, “his timing’s just a bit off”. Boris was the wild card candidate for the dark days when the economy was tanking and the Tories were haemorrhaging votes (and MPs) to UKIP; Osborne is the newly-inspiring and safe pair of hands to, in Boris’s preferred metaphor, receive the rugby ball from a silky-smooth Cameron pass.

Indeed, scarcely has a politician so completely dominated his party, intellectually and politically. Four ministers sitting around the cabinet table have served as Osborne’s parliamentary private secretary in the last five years. He has fawned on the 2010 intake, packing the junior ministerial ranks with his fresh-faced acolytes, and looks set to do the same with the 2015 intake: each newly elected Tory MP will be invited to dinner at Number 11 before the end of the year. The real question used to be whom Osborne will permit through to the final round with him (the parliamentary party picks two candidates for the nationwide party membership to vote upon). Now that he comfortably leads polls of party members, even this seems of diminished importance.

Two things will be twitching on Osborne’s finely-tuned politically antennae, however. Firstly, the unwritten rule of Tory leadership contests is that the frontrunner scarcely ever wins. This is writ large across recent history: Cameron overtaking Davis and Fox, Major gliding past Heseltine, Duncan-Smith overhauling both Portillo and Clarke. Yet this time feels different: Osborne is not just the front-runner, he is entirely hegemonic. Provided the economy carries on ticking along, and a weighty combination of business and political stakeholders manage to keep Britain in the EU, it is extremely difficult to see what can destabilise his juggernaut of a campaign.

Secondly, there is something that Osborne and his political master will be only too keenly aware of. It is a decade since the Cameron-Osborne project began the slow process of modernising the Conservative party – and in ten years and two elections all they have to show for their efforts is a twelve-seat majority, smaller even than Major’s in 1992. Both politicians cut their teeth in that government, and know only too well the corrosive effects of a small majority combined with impending arguments over Europe. Moreover, the elections were fought against two deeply unpopular Labour leaders: Miliband and Brown.

Even here there is surely cause for optimism, though. 2015 looks far from the electoral peak for the Cameronian Tories. There is a reason ministers were told to rein in attacks on Corbyn in conference week. Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the cabinet know that each and every one of them could easily outdo the shabby and uninspiring leader of the opposition. Indeed, Cameron, whose patriotism runs deep, couldn’t resist an attack on his opponent’s “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” ideology. But Osborne the strategist knows that Corbyn provides the opportunity to win the 2020 election and, coupled with long overdue boundary reforms, to reshape British politics for a generation and re-establish the Tory dominance that characterised most of the twentieth century. Thus the Northern Powerhouse and the Living Wage. It cannot just be Lord Adonis who considers this new Conservative Party the natural home for those who believe in centrism and the excitement of the common ground.

For Cameron and Osborne, the road to this point was not as smooth as many seem to remember. But the path ahead is surely less winding and perilous.