Cameron’s Wet Finger in the Wind

by MELANIE PHILLIPS October 8, 2010
The stage set used by the British Conservative Party for its annual conference this week told you all you needed to know about Prime Minister David Cameron’s top priority. The word “Conservative” was nowhere to be seen. Instead there was the blandly uplifting but resolutely inclusive slogan: “Together in the national interest.”
Mr. Cameron is leaving no stone unturned in his determination to erase from the national psyche the caricature image of the Tories as “the nasty” party, serving only the interests of the rich and selfish. Very few conservative policies were on display this week. Once upon a time at such events, the party’s MPs vied with each other to throw red meat to the “blue rinse” brigade in pledges to crack down on criminals or feckless lone parents.
Now it was all about “people power,” climate change and global poverty, overshadowed by the grim specter of a new, cross-party age of austerity to tackle Britain’s enormous deficit.
Considering that this was the first such tribal Tory gathering since a Conservative leader finally made it to 10 Downing Street, the atmosphere from the start was distinctly muted. Hardly surprising, since the Conservatives had not actually won last May’s general election and were only in power by virtue of their coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats.
But to everyone’s astonishment, the Tories and Lib Dems appear to be getting on terribly well. Some think Mr. Cameron may be using the opportunity offered by the coalition to erase conservatism from the party altogether and turn it—just like the stage set—from Tory blue to LibDem yellow.
After all, it’s a strange sort of conservative prime minister who, faced with the need to make massive public spending cuts, chooses to ring-fence international aid while trying to emasculate the defence budget, even while British soldiers are dying in Afghanistan for want of adequate kit.
To such criticisms, Tory ministers tend to use the LibDems as human shields, murmuring that their coalition partners are responsible for any lurches to the left. How far Mr. Cameron is being pushed by his LibDem colleagues is not clear. His own strategy has been to move the Tories to the left to shed its “nasty party” image.
The really fragile coalition is not between the Tories and the LibDems but between the Cameroons and the party’s grass-roots, viewed dismissively by the party leadership as a far right bunch of Neanderthals.
These loyal party activists have been biting their lips this week. They were torn between relief that there is once again a Conservative prime minister and an unease that he may not really be very conservative at all.
They like the way Mr. Cameron conducts himself in office: his calmness, civility and that effortless assumption of being born to rule that is the product of an Eton education and an Oxford first-class degree.
They applaud the proposed reform to the welfare state, which is aimed to end the perverse disincentives to work for people on benefits. They approve of the policy of “free schools” aimed at expanding parental choice and breaking open the “secret garden” of teaching failure.
But they hate the coalition’s liberal criminal justice ideas, are furious about what they see as the betrayal of the Tory promise to snatch back powers from the European Union, and are appalled that a Tory-led government has enacted Labour’s oppressive “equality” legislation.
This fragile stand-off between the two hostile Tory camps came to an explosive end on Monday when the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that Child Benefit, paid to mothers for every child, would no longer be paid to anyone earning more than £43,875 per year.
The ensuing uproar knocked the conference’s stage-managed impression of a new Tory dawn off-balance. It wasn’t just the unfairness of continuing to pay this benefit to a couple with two incomes bringing home some £87,000 while stripping it from a household with a single income of £44,000. Worse, the change would hit the very people the Conservatives were supposed to champion: traditional families where Dad goes to work and Mum stays at home to bring up the kids. Meanwhile, single mothers without a father around at all would continue to get the money.
This debacle was the result of two things: the tunnel vision of the Treasury, which can see nothing beyond a balance sheet, and David Cameron’s preoccupation with political positioning. He was trying to show that the Tories cared about the poor and were no longer out of touch with people’s needs.
Instead he showed that the Tories have lurched from being out of touch with the poor to being out of touch with the middle-class, their own core vote. Those people had been crying out for deliverance from the class war waged against them by the Labour government. They are stupefied to find that apparently it is now being waged against them by the Tories, allowing even Ed Miliband, the new Labour party leader considered to be of the unelectable left, to present himself cheekily as the champion of the “squeezed middle.”
Some now predict the coalition could implode into a welter of recriminations. One fuming Tory MP believes that, if the notoriously undisciplined LibDem rank and file don’t bring the coalition down over the forthcoming cuts in public spending, the Tory grass-roots could be the ones finally to revolt.
Still others speculate that Mr. Cameron wants the Tories and LibDems to morph into a new Coalition Party and a new type of politics altogether based on the common ground between them: a small state and a Big Society, social liberalism and fiscal rectitude and a coolness toward America. In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Cameron claimed he was heading no less than “a coalition of the British people.”
But as the Child Benefit fiasco suggests, it’s also possible that the Tory prime minister is more like someone merely wetting his finger and putting it up to the wind. Contributing Editor Melanie Phillips is the author of the powerful and frightening "Londonistan" which can be purchased here and she blogs at The Spectator.

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