It is, in the Americanism, ‘politics 101’. Margaret Thatcher understood this perfectly. Whilst driving through an economic programme which was unorthodox and potentially risky, she made sure her social programme appealed to her C2 bedrock. Famously, in 1980 she implemented the recommendations of a commission on police pay, which saw salaries shoot up, in some cases by 45%. Police recruitment boomed in the early 1980s, just in time for the miners’ strike and inner-city riots. She sold off the council houses, transforming people’s lives and neighbourhoods, and catalysing a new market in DIY. She appropriated patriotism for the right, and hand-bagged everyone from General Galtieri to Leonid Brezhnev, to the solid approval of British voters. She upset a lot of people too, as she trod on their dreams and strangled their hope, but never enough to lose an election.
David Cameron is a clever man. He holds a first-class honours degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from the University of Oxford. For all of his adult life, before becoming an MP he has worked for politicians, political parties or sought political office. Which means it is all the more astonishing, perplexing, and baffling that he is so hell-bent on upsetting his own political supporters. As I write, members of the British Medical Association(BMA), a trade union with power that Paul Kenny can only dream of, are on strike. Doctors on strike, for the first time since 1975. Back then, it was the junior hospital doctors striking over rates of overtime. Barbara Castle’s Diary records her sense of frustration that Labour’s health reforms were being met by such forceful opposition from the BMA, a sensation known to every health minister since.
We will see how well-supported, and how much public sympathy, today’s BMA action generates. My guess is that most GPs will carry on working. Public sympathy for a strike to protect pensions worth £68,000 a year will be about the same level as sympathy for Jimmy Carr. But that’s not the point. For this Conservative-led government to upset GPs to the point of industrial action is a sign of a deeper malaise. We know the police are desperately unhappy. Again, this is not a group prone to industrial unrest. For the Police Federation’s members to be so off-side with a right-wing government takes some doing. Forces families are concerned about defence secretary Philip Hammond’s announcements that the army will be reduced by 30,000 by 2020. Whole units and regiments will disappear.
And not content with upsetting GPs, the police and the army, David Cameron seems intent on pushing the loyalty of its own MPs beyond breaking point. The biggest issue in the minds of Conservative MPs is not the daily humiliation of supporting a coalition with bitter enemies the Liberal Democrats, nor even the sound of society’s fabric being torn to pieces; it is concern for their own skins. David Cameron has set the government on course to scrap 50 seats, most of them Tories. It is unlikely many of them read Pruning the Politicians: the case for a smaller House of Commons by Andrew Tyrie MP, published by Conservative Mainstream in 2004. It shows why you should pay attention to what crazy right-wing think-tanks are saying. But Cameron read it, agreed with it, adopted it as policy, and introduced a parliamentary bill to achieve it. Now, the skies above Downing Street are darkening with chickens coming home to roost. If you were a Tory MP, with your party in government after nearly two decades of irrelevance, how enthusiastic would you be to support legislation which abolishes your seat? At the same time, Tories are being asked to back Nick Clegg’s proposals for Lords reform, with which they violently disagree.
A government without a mandate; a coalition characterised by mutual loathing; a political base fracturing like an ice-cap; revolting backbenchers (in every sense); a united opposition miles ahead in the polls. It adds up to a whole heap of trouble for the government. What historians will note is that most of the trouble is of David Cameron’s own making. He must have been off smashing up a restaurant on the day they did Politics 101. Perhaps Michael Gove can suggest a useful O Level?