Well, that proves Cameron is not the ‘new Thatcher’

The Cameron set’s bizarre handling of the child-benefit backlash shows that it lacks both the ethos and experience to govern decisively.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

The Conservative Party conference in Birmingham should put paid to the myth that David Cameron is the new Margaret Thatcher – younger, fresher-faced, more male and sans handbag but nonetheless every bit as Tory and ruthless as his helmet-haired predecessor. That is how he was depicted in the handwringing liberal press after he came to power with his sidekicks the Lib Dems in May this year. He was the ‘son of Thatcher’, we were told, who would ‘take Britain back to the past’. Yet Birmingham has made it crystal clear, to anyone neutral enough to note these things, that Cameron absolutely lacks one important thing that Thatcher had: an ability to be decisive and push things through.

The conference has demonstrated that the modern-day Conservative Party, in its New, greener, fairness-obsessed incarnation, lacks the experience and the ethos to govern effectively. It doesn’t have the courage of its convictions, and its rule is therefore inherently unstable. Nowhere was this clearer than on what turned out to be the big issue of the conference: the Conservatives’ plans to withdraw child benefit from anyone earning more than £43,875 a year. The furious response to this proposal, from the media, parenting activists, the Lib Dem rank-and-file and even some Tory backbenchers, shows first that there is a phenomenal amount of disunity amongst the political and cultural elites. And second, Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne’s utter failure to deal effectively with the backlash confirms that they lack the political and moral tools to ride out conflict and pursue their agenda.

I don’t support the removal of child benefit from high earners, which will lead to a loss of £1,055 a year for one-child families and £2,500 a year for those with three children. Child benefit has traditionally been, and should remain, a universal benefit. However, from the Conservative leadership’s point of view – at least from Cameron and Osborne’s point of view – the cut made sense as part of their broader rethink of the welfare system. More to the point, a YouGov poll suggested that 83 per cent of people support their plan to remove child benefit from high earners. And yet these two things – Cameron and Osborne’s commitment to the idea and the seeming public backing for it – were not enough to insulate the Tories from the ensuing controversy. And the backlash exposed an alarming absence of coherence – of both the intellectual and structural varieties – at the heart of the New Conservative Party.

Political observers were quick to condemn Cameron’s plans. In articles that sometimes creepily echoed the pity-journalism of the more patronising Victorian writers on The Poor (‘I cried when I heard about the changes’, said a frontpage Guardian headline about single mums), liberal hacks laid into the Cameron-Osborne benefit cuts. Campaigning parental groups such as Mumsnet – who ironically were empowered by Cameron and other political leaders who furiously courted them during the General Election – used their significant, if unrepresentative, power to hurl polemical hand grenades in Cameron’s direction. And Lib-Dem activists and spokespeople, with whom the Conservatives are in a governing coalition, voiced their concerns about Cameron’s ‘Thatcherite policy proposals’.

The critical reaction has scored a devastating blow against the Conservative leadership – not because it has been particularly coherent or profound, but because Cameron and his coterie clearly lack the political skills and wherewithal to withstand and absorb external pressure. So Cameron has publicly apologised for not having included the plans for a child-benefit cut in the Tory Party manifesto published in the run-up to the election. (His use of the s-word has, of course, only fuelled the controversy: ‘Backlash grows as Cameron says sorry’, as one headline put it.) Osborne rushed out an apologetic letter to all Conservative MPs explaining how they should view the child-benefit cut and explain it to their constituents. It all smells of ‘policy wobbles’, as one journalist described it. Cameron and Osborne say they won’t back down on their child-benefit plans, but their uber-jittery response to the controversy has nonetheless revealed their profoundly indecisive tendencies and allergy to non-consensus. The conference has proved to be a ‘test of the Conservative leadership mettle’, said one liberal observer, with more than a little glee, and that mettle has proved to be flimsy indeed.

As the controversy unfolded, it became clear that there is a creeping crisis of coherence in Tory Party ranks. Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory secretary of state for work and pensions, suggested in an interview that Osborne felt pressured – largely by the media – to make the child-benefit announcement in the first place. So even Osborne is being absolved of responsibility for what he said. Theresa May, the Tory home secretary, refused 11 times to answer a question about whether she and other Cabinet members had been informed of Osborne’s planned announcement in advance – giving rise to speculation that this was a Cameron/Osborne initiative rather than a thought-through party stance. Now there is talk of a possible Cabinet shake-up. In response to some unfavourable headlines and controversy about child-benefit cuts. How would this supposedly ruling party cope if there were a national emergency?

Clearly the decisive factor here is the internal disarray, the political indirection, of the Conservative Party. The lack of consensus in the coalition and broader political circles is striking – but more striking still is the Conservative leadership’s inability to manage, defuse or override this lack of consensus to do things it feels are right. This conference has demonstrated that the new Tory leadership lacks the experience to govern in a meaningful way. Drawn largely from the insulated worlds of think-tanking, journalism and commerce, learning their craft from expert advisers rather than from engagement with the public and with public institutions, these leaders have little knowledge of how to lead or how to convince, coax or even cajole (in that old-fashioned realpolitik way) people to fall into line. In an era when ‘reaching a consensus’ is held up as the goal of good government, when everything from online petitions to focus groups are used by desperate politicians to provide their decisions with a lick of legitimacy, there is a notable absence of the ethos of leadership in new political circles.

Some will no doubt cheer the Conservatives’ incoherence. But the lasting impression left by the Birmingham conference is of a ruling party that is not really capable of ruling, and liberal critics who are more interested in using self-serving arguments and sob stories to test their opponents’ mettle than in putting forward serious alternative policy proposals. This is a snapshot of elite political instability, with the public nowhere to be seen.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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