From a distance, David Cameron looks like one of the world’s most successful conservatives. He brought his party back to power, ending its 13-year spell in the wilderness. His politics, he once told me, were about achieving “liberal ends through conservative means,” and on schools and welfare those means have been undeniably radical. He preaches about the danger of debt, and is winning the argument, with a majority of Brits persuaded of the need for austerity. From a distance, this charming and charismatic 45-year-old might seem like the perfect conservative poster boy.
Then there is another view: that Cameron is in fact a flake, who for all his talk about “dealing with the debt” is increasing it almost as much as Barack Obama (whom he adores). That, much as Cameron likes using the military, he is making massive defense cuts and spending the saved money on overseas aid projects. That he is lazy and unserious, and has surrounded himself with cronies, making his government closer to Friends than to The West Wing. And that his election was not a triumph of Conservatism, but of spin over principle.
So which is the real Cameron? It’s hard to tell because he does not lead a Conservative government, but a coalition with the Liberal Democrats—a tiny, left-leaning party that has 9 percent of the seats in Parliament. Yet Cameron has handed them 50 percent of the power. He set up a new governing system call the “quad”: two Tories and two LibDems who, in effect, decide how Britain is governed. It’s hard to say it’s going well.
If Cameron loses the next election, his downfall will be traced to his visit to Washington in March. The British Prime Minister was offered the full red-carpet treatment, but it was the week before the Budget, which sets the economic policy for the next year. So there was a choice: stay in London to get the small print of the financial package right. Option two involved motorcades, trips in Air Force One, private tours of the White House, and the star treatment. To a political junkie like Cameron, it was no contest. And when he came back, all hell broke loose.
While the Tory high command was off touching the hem of the president, they had had left the civil servants to get on finishing off the Budget—the British governmental equivalent of leaving the teenagers alone with the whiskey and the car keys.
“They threw in their pet schemes, and they weren’t stopped,” one member of Cameron’s cabinet grumbles to me. The result was an unpersuasive collection of different micro-policies. A 20 percent tax was imposed on calorific British pasties (meat pies), a minimum tax rate was imposed on the rich, crippling charitable donations. None of this was foreseen, most contradicted Cameron’s core messages, and all of it left the impression that he doesn’t stand for anything.
This is untrue. Cameron does have a metropolitan outlook on life, fashionable friends, a young wife who wears a tattoo on her ankle, and a wind turbine on the roof of his London flat that purports to generate electricity. He talks about work-life balance, and comes across as a man to whom friends and family matter more than work and politics. But all of this, he argues, means he can do a better job selling Conservatism to the British public.
His policy is to produce a mosaic of policies to assuage left and right. For the left, he will double government overseas aid—even if this means borrowing money from China to give it to India. He will advocate gay marriage, in an attempt to demonstrate his party’s modernity. For the right, he proposes to cut the top rate of income tax from 52 percent to 47 percent, and extend a voucher system for schools. To the outsider, Cameron’s policy may be confusingly mixed. But the Prime Minister believes he is doling out spoonfuls of sugar, to make the Conservative medicine go down.
The problem is that, so far, it’s been all sugar and no medicine. On state spending, Cameron has talked about the danger of the debt while borrowing like a drunken Keynesian. The British government machine was fed like a foie gras goose by the time he came to office, having grown by 57 percent over the previous decade. But Cameron restricted himself to cutting total spending by just 1 percent a year, hardly a crash diet. “The solution to a debt crisis cannot be more debt,” Cameron told the House of Commons in April. Maybe not, but this is precisely his approach: to increase national debt by 60 percent.
HIS WELFARE REFORM is audacious in scope. Britain is about two decades behind America in understanding how welfare can incubate the very poverty it is supposed to eradicate. The rise of employment in the 13 Labour years was entirely due to a rise in foreign-born workers, a calamitous economic policy that left a legacy of deep poverty and 2.7 million on incapacity benefit, deemed too sick to ever work again. Cameron is having each and every one of them summoned into a doctor’s clinic to be reassessed for what work they can do. Anyone who can hold a brush, for example, could be required to take up work sweeping parks.
While bold, it will take a decade to complete—and Cameron has, at most, three years on the clock. The British welfare system controls more lives than many former Soviet states, and this is perestroika. In the two years that Cameron has been in office, the same phenomenon has happened: what little employment growth we have seen is entirely accounted for by sucking in more foreign-born workers. This is unlikely to change much as long as Britain remains in the European Union, a membership supported by only a third of the public. Coalition between Euroskeptic Tories and Europhile LibDems has rendered the government mute on the subject.
In the end, politicians are judged by what they do rather than what they say. It almost doesn’t matter how conservative Cameron is, if he is unable to enact many Conservative reforms. Having a Tory raise debt with a heavy heart is not much better than having a socialist do it with zeal. Saying his hands are tied by the LibDems is not a plausible excuse: their popular support has halved, and for them, triggering an election would be to volunteer for annihilation.
Amongst friends, Cameron always spoke as if his second term would be the one in which he would really enact his Conservative revolution. But, with the economy flatlining and his poll rating plunging, it is looking increasingly likely that he will not get that opportunity.