Never has David Cameron’s political authority been greater. He has just won an outright majority on his own terms, confounding a throng of critics and every opinion pollster in the land. Some Tory backbenchers had been looking forward to his failure, ready to denounce him as a sell-out and an electoral liability. They have been proved wrong; the PM has been proved right.
His victory gives him a windfall of political capital, now his to spend. When chosen as Tory leader, Cameron felt hemmed in by public opinion and seemed to live in fear of caustic polls. Once elected, he found his hands tied by coalition. Now, having declared that he will not fight another election, there is nothing left to fear.
A slender majority can, of course, quickly turn into a bed of nails. Plenty of battles with deeply irritating Tory rebels lie ahead. But for now, having confounded critics, Cameron has a few months during which he can do pretty much what he likes. He could whizz through the policies that the Liberal Democrats had thwarted.
A year ago, he had to pause school reform as he feared it would become a problem in an election campaign. No such concerns should haunt him now. Just a few days ago, Nick Clegg decided that he wanted to be Education Secretary, so as to dismantle the reforms he had spent the last five years fighting.
It seemed, then, as if Cameron would have to agree. Now, he is choosing his own Cabinet — and for the first time, choosing his own government to carry out his own agenda. This poses a question that Cameron has never quite answered: what is his personal agenda?
He has, thus far, specialised in the compromises of coalition. In government, his style was to hire energetic radicals — Michael Gove in education, Iain Duncan Smith in welfare — and leave them to it. He’d talk about their successes, rather than his own. Downing St was reduced to a marriage guidance centre, a place where Tory and Liberal Democrat aides bickered and bartered. No one, really, was doing the traditional work of No 10: developing the PM’s agenda and ensuring that it was carried out across government.
This left Cameron at a disadvantage, which was on display during the campaign. He struggled to articulate his personal vision, leading to what he privately admits were lacklustre TV performances. He had a wobble a month ago when he asked his chief strategist, Lynton Crosby, to let him speak about a greater variety of more exciting topics.
Crosby refused, saying he wanted one message only — the promise of economic progress — and there were only a few weeks to convey it to millions of voters. The Prime Minister agreed it was too late to go off-piste. Crosby’s strategy, which many (myself included) found infuriatingly dull, has now been utterly vindicated.
His trump card was asking England to reject a Labour-SNP government: an appalling prospect, to be sure, but there is still something depressing about hearing the case for conservatism reduced to means of avoiding what Boris Johnson memorably called “ajockalypse now”.
When I interviewed the Prime Minister a fortnight ago, he spoke mournfully about the case for his school reform being “undersold in many ways”. He spoke almost as if he were a conscript in somebody else’s army. During the campaign, he honed his policies and his language until they reached something he was more comfortable with: extending right-to-buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants and placing a moratorium on tax rises.
Last week, television audience members had to beg him to explain the moral case for his reforms — not give a laundry list of boasts. By Monday, he was explaining — in unscripted speeches — that the purpose of an economic recovery was to build better schools and a stronger safety net.
He now knows where Conservatism ought to go next: recognising the flaws in the recovery, and explaining why voting Tory is the surest way of addressing them. This was the great weakness of the campaign. Too often, the Tories spoke as if they were insolvency specialists trying to liquidise, rather than transform, government. As if those who moved from welfare to work had all their problems solved — ignoring the many who feel they have swapped the trap of unemployment for that of low pay.
George Osborne’s proposed £12 billion (Dh68 billion) welfare cuts (a figure plucked from thin air to let him pretend that he’ll balance the books) helped reinforce an image of a cruel party, with next-to-no interest for those at the bottom. With his new majority, this is precisely what Cameron has the chance to remedy. Early yesterday, he used a phrase — later repeated on the steps of No 10 — which could become the agenda of his second term.
“I want my party,” he said, “to reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost: the mantle of one nation.”
This, of course, will mean securing the future of the Union (as Charles Moore describes overleaf). But to Cameron, it also means staking the Conservatives’ claim to be the only true party of social justice, the greatest enemy of inequality and the party best able to solve the problems that Labour decries. One-nation Conservatism, if done properly, could be David Cameron’s attempt to fight Labour on its own territory — as boldly and as effectively as Blair raided the Tories’ turf 20 years ago. The first step to solving a problem is to recognise it. Too many are being left behind by the recovery: rising average pay masks fast wage growth at the top and stagnation at the bottom.
No Conservative should be comfortable with this trend: it’s a dysfunction of the recovery. The pay of the lowest 10 per cent has barely improved in 15 years. Rather than rail against “predator” employers, as Ed Miliband did to such little effect, Conservatives can bring real help by focusing tax cuts at those at the bottom. Universal Credit, the new welfare system, can be a powerful tool if used properly. When Cameron became leader, he spoke about “Conservative means to progressive ends”, but let the agenda drift away from him.
If he makes No 10 into a powerhouse, with a Crosby-style chief of staff able to identify and pursue a handful of priorities, this drift can end.
With the Labour Party settling down to disembowel itself — something of a ritual after electoral defeat — an extraordinary opportunity now presents itself. Of course it was Ed Miliband who was speaking about “one-nation” policies not so long ago, in audacious attempt to steal Disraeli’s agenda from the Tories.
Yesterday, Cameron stole it back. It’s deeply tempting to write Miliband off as an abject failure — but he framed many problems well, even if his solutions were fanciful. This is the great advantage that Conservatism has over socialism: it actually works.
If you really want to restore social mobility, repair the springboard of education and move power from the few to the many then accept no substitutes. For 10 years, Cameron’s political career has followed a depressing cycle: success, complacency, panic — and then narrow escape from a near-death experience.
Now would be a rather good time to break the cycle. Britain’s electorate has sent him a clear message: they don’t want him to worry about Ukip, or accommodating the Lib Dems. They want to see what he can do with nothing to hold him back. If he is serious about one-nation politics, then now is the perfect time to start reshaping his party. And he might just reshape Conservatism in the process.
— The Telegraph Group Limted, London 2015