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The Secret of David Cameron’s Success

from the magazine

The Secret of David Cameron’s Success

Britain’s prime minister rebranded conservative ideas for a twenty-first-century electorate. Winter 2016
Politics and law

At five minutes to ten on Thursday evening, May 7, 2015, David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom for perhaps only a few hours longer, was sitting at home in Dean, Oxfordshire, feeling gloomy. The exit polls were due at ten o’clock, and the signs weren’t promising. For a month, opinion polls hadn’t budged, and on all but the most optimistic of readings, they showed Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, becoming Britain’s next prime minister. During the day, one of Cameron’s trusted former advisors, fresh from some voter research of his own, phoned to say that the early voting seemed to reflect the polls. The prime minister should prepare for defeat.

There was some cause for hope: Labour couldn’t win a majority. And it looked as though the Conservatives would have more seats than the main opposition, who were going to lose heavily in Scotland. But it seemed unlikely that the Tories would win enough seats to be able to form any sort of governing coalition. They might, perhaps, win 270 seats but would then need other parties to take them up to 323 and majority control of the House of Commons.

And then Big Ben struck ten. The BBC announced first that, as expected, the Conservatives would remain the largest party in the new Parliament. Then, to Cameron’s delight—and disbelief—the preliminary figures were announced: the Conservative Party would win 316 seats to Labour’s 238. As the night wore on, the news got better. The Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s junior coalition partner, had started the night with 57 seats and ended with only eight. Labour won almost no seats at the expense of Conservatives and lost almost its entire Scottish contingent. (The Scottish Nationalists won 56 seats, including all but three seats in Scotland.) And the Conservatives? They finished with 331 seats and a parliamentary majority. Cameron remained prime minister.

The 2015 elections marked the first time in nearly a century that a British governing party had increased its share of the vote after a full term in office. The achievement makes Cameron one of the most successful political leaders in British history. How did he do it?

The story begins in 1997, when, after 18 years of Conservative Party power, Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a landslide victory. It was the worst Tory result for more than 150 years, and the party wasn’t sure how it had happened. Had people turned against the Conservatives because they resented the party of Margaret Thatcher and wanted more spending on public services? Or, fed up with a party that no longer seemed to trust its instincts, had they punished the Tories for abandoning Thatcher’s robust leadership in favor of the more conciliatory John Major? It is only a slight caricature to say that the conclusion that the party needed to rediscover Thatcherism won out. That premise united the party and suited the available leadership candidates, and no one had a better idea.

But it didn’t work. Tony Blair took advantage of good economic conditions, his own personal moderation, and brilliant communications skills to win two more elections. In 2001, the Conservatives gained just one seat; in 2005, they picked up only 33. After eight years out of power, the Conservatives held just 198 seats, one of the weakest Tory positions in modern history.

Enter David Cameron. In 2005, having served in Parliament only four years and not yet 40, Cameron declared his candidacy for the vacant Conservative leadership. Few gave him a chance, but his timing was perfect. The Conservative Party was fed up with losing and more willing to take risks in order to win again. Cameron wowed a party conference with a charismatic performance, the impact of which was far out of proportion to its content. He talked of the need for change and of the importance of optimism and accepting the modern world. He reassured the party faithful that he opposed British adoption of the euro; but in other ways, he wore his ideology lightly. Central to his victory were insights from polling, which showed that, when asked about issues such as immigration policy, voters expressed views resembling official Conservative positions. Yet when told that these were Tory positions, voters rejected them.

Cameron offered the chance to “detoxify the party’s brand,” as pundits put it. He was a young family man who seemed kind and modern—a different kind of Tory. Taking office, the new Conservative leader made a dazzling first impression, much of it pure style. He rode a bicycle, he was pictured often with his children, and he was witty and confident in the House of Commons, even when he went up against Prime Minister Tony Blair. He had the look of a winner.

His main policy moves were to change the subjects that Tories usually spoke about. He didn’t shift the party’s positions on immigration or Europe—he just stopped, as he called it, “banging on about them.” He found a new formula to describe Tory tax-cutting, proposing to “share the proceeds of growth between higher spending and lower tax.” This was a clever way of rebranding the traditional party policy of ensuring that the state grew more slowly than the economy. Cameron talked a good deal about contemporary concerns, such as the environment, obesity, and social obligation. He said that Conservatives should not always be talking about what they would “bring back”—in the past, they had pledged to “bring back selective schools” or “bring back capital punishment” or “bring back imperial measurement.”

Cameron’s experience caring for his disabled son, Ivan, who tragically died, reassured voters that he cared about the National Health Service and, to an extent, exempted him from traditional Tory political liabilities on health policy. This was no small advantage to gain. He also tackled head-on the well-worn notion that Conservatives believe that “there is no such thing as society.” This much-distorted statement of Margaret Thatcher’s was intended as a corrective to the idea that “society” can pay for things, or that “society” can be to blame for the deeds of individuals or families. It was a statement about personal responsibility, yet the quotation had long been used to suggest that Conservatives didn’t believe in community or in social obligation.

To clear it up, Cameron stated clearly that Conservatives do believe in society, “but it is not the same thing as the state.” From this formulation arose his signature idea—the Big Society. Through a combination of such measures as decentralization of power to local communities, use of the bully pulpit, encouragement of charities as deliverers of public services, and the creation of independent schools, Conservatives would create stronger social support than the big state provided.

Cameron’s mix of policy, priority, and tone proved attractive, and he soared in the polls. He had created an approach that might be called warm-weather modernization, well adapted to the politics of the long boom. Then, with the financial crisis and subsequent major recession, the weather turned cold.

Despite a downturn in fortune after Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in mid-Parliament, Cameron always looked like the favorite to become prime minister. In the months before the 2010 election, however, his lead faded slightly, for two reasons. The first was the decision by Cameron and his shadow chancellor and right-hand man George Osborne to come clean (more or less) about cutting public spending. They did not, by any means, indicate the full program of cuts to come, but they hinted at it and gave some examples—including a public-sector pay freeze. The second reason is that the Big Society, never a strong electoral factor, whatever its policy strengths, looked eccentric and irrelevant at a time of economic crisis. In May 2010, therefore, the Conservatives were the largest party and the result was one of the biggest swings and seat gains in modern times, but Cameron didn’t win the anticipated majority. Moving swiftly, Cameron formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, essentially swapping a referendum on voting reform (which the Tories won, defeating the Liberal Democratic plan) for Liberal support of his tough economic program.

Straightaway, the chancellor of the exchequer announced that the coalition would raise taxes and cut spending in roughly a 20:80 ratio, with the goal of reaching a balanced budget before the end of the parliamentary term. What became known as the austerity program was internationally controversial. Was it really necessary? Was it counterproductive? The Nobel economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman led the critical charge against it. He regarded the Cameron policy as stupid and those who advocated it as ignorant. The facts have not been kind to his thesis. Despite eurozone troubles, which reduced exports and hurt consumer confidence, the British economy grew at a comparable rate with that of the U.S., with its huge stimulus. A crisis of confidence among creditors, a real possibility in 2010, was avoided. And a great deal of progress was made on reducing a structural deficit that had already been too large when the financial crisis hit. The government had capitalized on a rare moment when people were willing to accept spending reductions.

The decision to reduce the deficit was not, of course, merely a macroeconomic one. It also required big cuts in public spending, forcing the pace of public-service reform. The government agreed to protect the real value of pensions, not to cut health spending (the NHS being almost a national religion in Britain and the Tories not trusted with it), to maintain education and science spending, and, most controversially, to meet the international aid target of 0.7 percent of national income—a promise that was made in better times but that the prime minister would find hard to abandon, even if he wished to.

The Liberal Democrats had insisted on implementing their policy of raising the starting salary before one must pay income tax to £10,000 (it was well on its way to £11,000 by the end of Parliament). This meant that in some unprotected departments, including the administration of justice, policing, and arts and rural affairs, Parliament had to make appropriations cuts of up to 20 percent. A program of reorganization, contracting out services, cutting central administration, and using information technology more effectively allowed these cuts to be made without creating severe political problems. Indeed, as police-force numbers shrank, so did crime. And as local government spending went down, satisfaction ratings for local government services went up.

Rather unexpectedly (at least for British politicians), large reductions in welfare spending, which the government had worried about, proved hugely popular—in particular, placing a cap on the total amount that one household could receive. The government argued that nobody should receive more in benefits than the average family earned working. Labour offered no effective alternative.

Still, the Big Society’s electoral impact is debatable. The language about empowerment and community helped Cameron project himself as a new kind of conservative, but voters, while interested in better public services, seemed remarkably unmotivated by the opportunity for greater control over these services, including the chance to set up their own local schools. And when, in mid-Parliament, strategy director Steve Hilton left Downing Street for personal reasons, Cameron began concentrating more on his economic message, bringing in the Australian Lynton Crosby to run his reelection campaign. The Big Society wasn’t mentioned.

The strong consensus among political analysts in Britain is that the Big Society idea was a flop and has now been abandoned—yet much of what Cameron spoke about has become policy.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, set the pace. Alongside policies to make exams more rigorous and toughen teaching standards, Gove set out to establish new types of schools—“free” schools. Inspired somewhat by Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which British Conservative politicians have always admired, free schools are set up by parents or teachers with a distinct ethos—emphasizing traditional standards, for instance, or reading. Today, 252 free schools operate in Britain, a tiny percentage of the total number of schools (more than 20,000). But the government has also let thousands of existing schools become academies, which operate independent of local government control and often involve external sponsors—similar to American charter schools. Together, the free schools and academies now account for 21.6 percent of Britain’s state schools. Students in these schools have achieved qualifications in math and English at 5 percent higher rates than students in regular state schools.

Other results proved more disappointing. Few voters turned out for police-commissioner elections—a new reform—and some localities defeated efforts to turn their governing authorities into mayoralties. Both these moves had been designed to encourage greater local leadership and civic involvement.

But the government did not give up. It set up a system that enabled groups of local authorities to band together and bid for funding that would otherwise have been controlled by central government. As part of the deal, the larger areas agreed to elect mayors. The result has been a surge of political momentum behind the idea of an alternative economic center to London in the north of England, with transport and political links between previously isolated small cities.

Riots in several British cities in summer 2011 inspired another successful Big Society program. The government noted that 120,000 of the most troubled families accounted for £9 billion of public spending—£8 billion of which was spent on reacting to these families’ problems, while only £1 billion went toward prevention. The Troubled Families Programme began with a £448 million budget drawn from several departments, including Education, Work and Pensions, Justice, Home Office and Communities, and Local Government. Local councils tapped this shared funding to design programs in their areas. Caseworkers were assigned to each family, and continued funding was made contingent on results—getting children back into school, putting adults back to work or on a path to work, and reducing youth crime and antisocial behavior.

The results have been promising. The average savings to the taxpayer per troubled family was £12,000—more than twice the average cost of the program’s intervention, at £5,493, according to a 2014 government report that studied costs and benefits across seven areas. In Manchester, for every £1 invested in the program, £2.20 in benefits have been realized. These efforts have helped more than 100,000 families cease the activities—truancy, crime, unemployment, antisocial behavior—that got them identified in the first place.

In sum, the Big Society has been and remains a pillar of Cameron’s program, even if, as a political theme, it was not a success.

As the 2015 election approached, Cameron came under pressure to make concessions to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), an anti-EU and, increasingly, anti-immigrant group that seemed a threat to Tories everywhere. The prime minister agreed to a referendum on Europe that had wide Conservative support, but he quickly realized that he could never outbid UKIP on immigration. So he reverted to a tactic that has worked for him in the past: he stopped talking about the issue. In the election, UKIP won 12 percent of the vote, much of it taken from Labour, but only one seat in Parliament.

During the last few weeks of the campaign, Cameron waved a letter incautiously left behind on his desk by the previous Labour treasury minister as a joke. “Sorry,” it said, “there’s no money left.” This attack proved devastatingly effective. A stronger Labour rival than Ed Miliband might have done better at the ballot box, and a weaker economy would certainly have tightened the election. The economy was by far the most important factor in the 2015 Tory victory, with only doubts about Miliband running it close. Labour ran a campaign designed to highlight living standards and found that they were emphasizing a Tory strength rather than exposing a weakness. In the end, David Cameron managed to make his policies—which were actually quite bold—seem like the only reasonable alternative, while fashioning himself as a decent man doing his best. And people rather liked that.

Photo: Despite his upper-class pedigree, Cameron’s down-to-earth style endeared him to voters. (MIRRORPIX/THE IMAGE WORKS)

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