In politics if you are not on the attack then you are on the defence, on the front foot or the back foot. For this reason courage is the friend of political leaders and caution, their enemy.
What Ed Miliband has proved in recent months is that when an opposition party has confidence and self-belief it is far more willing and able to offer a lead, take tough decisions and end up on the right side of the argument. What Miliband is fast learning is that the British people are often happy and willing to forgive the occasional error and poor decision but they rarely forgive the leader who simply refuses to take a decision because it is too tough. It is for this reason that many of the broadsheet commentators who were keen to write-off Ed’s leadership are beginning to admit that they misjudged him and that he is looking more and more like a Prime Minister in waiting.
In contrast David Cameron’s handling of recent events has exposed him to criticism that he is a shallow, one dimensional leader who talks a good game but fails to deliver the big ideas and the big decisions when needed. Cameron has not had a ‘good’ recession for several reasons. Firstly he has suffered from the perception that both he his party are too closely associated with the City fat cats whose greed triggered this financial meltdown. Secondly, when he became leader of the Tory party he refused to take the opportunity to speak out against the dangers of a poorly regulated City. Thirdly, Cameron and his Chancellor have on almost all the big economic questions been found wanting – plan A simply did not work.
The question many Tories are asking is whether Cameron has the courage necessary to lead, to take the tough decisions? Consider the evidence. He assured the nation that he went through the 2012 budget ‘line by line’ only to be forced into U-turn after U-turn. He says he wants tax cuts and more spending but with the same money. He says he wants to sort out all illegal immigration, but he opposed identity cards, the one thing essential to do it. He says he against academic selection one day but then backs plans to expand it the next.
The events of recent weeks have prompted me to reflect on the words of the former Tory MP Quentin Davies. In his letter to Cameron outlining his reasons for leaving the Conservative party and join Labour, he wrote:
“Under your leadership the Conservative party appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything, or to stand for anything. It has no bedrock. It exists on shifting sands. A sense of mission has been replaced by a PR agenda.”
Has the Tory party changed since Cameron became leader? Most of Mr Cameron’s early reforms were primarily cosmetic (a new HQ, a new party logo) and short-lived (the party’s “A” list of candidates). The difficulty for Cameron is that he leads a Tory party that is dominated by members who joined under Thatcher’s leadership, a membership that steadfastly refuses to move to the centre ground of British politics. It almost makes you feel sorry for Cameron – few people can lead a political party which obstinately refuses to be led. The other major problem for Cameron is the fact that too many of his front bench come from privileged, wealthy backgrounds. For many of the Eton educated Tory ‘toffs’ politics, even when in government, is a bit of hobby, something to do in conjunction with few non-executive directorships.
When Cameron and the Tories lose the next election I think it highly likely that the Tory party will end up tearing itself apart and that we will witness the formation of a new centre-right party (led possibly by Cameron or Nick Herbert) leaving the ‘traditional’ Conservatives (led by David Davis) to plough a ‘Thatcherite’ furrow that will eventually lead to electoral oblivion. Too apocalyptic do you think?
A couple of years ago I would have agreed but now I’m not so sure.