Opinion: Who can trust Cameron?

In June 2006 Professor John Curtice, commenting on opinion polls and shifts in the UK political environment said: “It looks as though we may have entered a new political era”. Andrew Grice, The Independent on Sunday’s Political Editor, observed that the Independent’s ‘poll of polls’ showed “David Cameron’s rejuvenated Conservative Party [opening] a seven-point lead over Labour.”

The focus of their political analysis was the impact of a recently elected Conservative Party leader on UK party politics. Here was a leader who had set out to detoxify the Tory brand, and he and his party appeared to be making significant headway.

David Cameron had, according to Andrew Grice, called on Tories to “abandon their ‘knee-jerk’ hostility to the public sector”, taken “a swipe at banks, insurance companies and utilities for poor customer care”, and even insisted that the private sector “often had lessons to learn from the public sector about how to treat people using their services”. David Cameron had also proclaimed his faith in “the ‘high-ideal’ of public service and criticised his own party for sending “out a negative message to public-sector workers”, which suggested that they were “lazy and inefficient”.

Of course David Cameron was simply doing what Cameroonians always do. Cameron is from a political tribe, which includes BC (Blair before Cameron) as well as CwaC (Conservatives with added Cameron). They are the real Cheshire cats and chameleons of British politics. David Cameron has little regard for where the impressions he so artfully strives to create lead, apart that is from a win at the polls.  All too often – and his party as well as a growing proportion of the British electorate appears to understand this – once an electorally expedient appearance has been
created, others are left to pick up the pieces and to deal with any adverse and unanticipated consequences.

Just consider a few of the occasions on which Cameron’s artfulness has come to look like recklessness – driven by short term political calculations – and the smile has faded away.  In 2007 David Cameron promised a referendum “on any EU treaty”. By November 2009 the commitment to a referendum had disappeared. Of course Mr Cameron already had form for this kind of thing. In 2005, during the Conservative leadership campaign, he sought to out manoeuvre his main blue opponent David Davis.

Mr Cameron gave a firm commitment that Conservatives would leave the European People’s party in the European Parliament. In June 2006 he told Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thompson (of the Telegraph) that he didn’t want to talk about the EPP and “barked, with genuine anger in his voice: ‘I’m sick to death of the EPP. It’s so boring’.” While the grin had left the leader’s face the consequences, for UK policy and politics, continue
to be felt.

In a recent editorial the Observer hit the nail on the head: “One reason for” David Cameron’s frequent inconsistencies “is [his] reliance on tactical retreat as a political manoeuvre. The positions he advances, however bold they might sound, are always provisional, subject to amendment if not well received.”

What did the Observer editorial writers have in mind? The editorial pointed out that:  “in 2007 [Cameron] demoted David Willetts [because he had] criticised grammar schools” and upset some important Conservative party members. Willetts’ statement reflected Conservative Party policy at the time, but the offending policy got the boot along with the Tory shadow education secretary.

Conservative Party policy on the environment has, as the Observer also points out, suffered a similar fate. While the Tory party logo was changed, to feature a scribbled tree, David Cameron’s public statements have adopted a scorched earth policy on environmental issues; squiggles, instead of specifics, designed to placate climate change doubters in his own party. And the Conservative leader’s enthusiasm, for a Tory fiscal favourite, married couples, has flipped and flopped with such rapidity (and apparent indifference to established Conservative Party policy) that he left himself no alternative but to acknowledge that he had “messed up”, by appearing to break a firm Tory promise only to reinstate it on the same day.

Vacillation on economic policy and the management of public expenditure has added to the impression that the Conservative leader and his shadow chancellor communicate poorly and reinforced the view that Cameron is prepared to abandon or trim policy positions opportunistically.

While George Osborne promised, in late February, on the Today programme, to be “tougher [when it came to controlling public spending] than Margaret Thatcher” had been, David Cameron reassured Andrew Marr, just a few weeks previously, on another BBC programme, that a Conservative government would not make “swingeing cuts”.

Conservative inconstancy and opportunism affects a great many areas of

policy. One of the most dangerous, for any Conservative leader, especially one prone to making promises it may prove difficult to keep in office, concerns the future of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

In January the Belfast Telegraph reported on a confidential discussion between the Conservative Party, Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists. The aim of such talks is widely believed to include boosting political support for David Cameron after a General Election.  The Belfast Telegraph story [January 20th] noted that: “Mr. Paterson [the Conservative’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary had] held private talks with a number of senior unionist politicians…over the weekend, the purpose of which was to help promote greater political stability’. Weasel words if ever I heard them.

Sonia S of Netmums – a political virgin so far as I am aware – is one of a growing number of electors wanting more substance from David Cameron. She is most certainly one of those electors to whom Liberal Democrats need to appeal much more strongly. Having listened to David Cameron’s Spring Conference speech she declared that she wasn’t persuaded either by his policies or his election slogan: ‘Vote for Change’. Cameron was unpersuasive, she declared, because he gave out mixed and inconsistent messages about his party’s family policies and remained vague about where cuts in public spending would fall. And Sonia S’s final judgement? “Cameron thinks he can win the election by being a good salesman”.

There is one simple conclusion about the Tory who has been targeted at Downing Street for the last four years. A party leader, chameleon and Cheshire cat by turns, who – to borrow the Observer’s description of his numerous political rebirths – has been an environmentalist, social liberal, advocate of localism, supporter of “sharing the proceeds of growth”, champion of post-bureaucratic public services and public sector cooperatives, as well as a cheer leader for rapid deficit reduction and austerity, in the course of the last four years. This Tory is a Con.

Ed Randall, a Liberal Democrat councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich from 1982 to 1998, edited the Dictionary of Liberal Thought jointly with Duncan Brack. Ed lectures on Politics and Risk at Goldsmiths University of London and is the author of Food, Risk and Politics, published by Manchester University Press in 2009.

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