Commentary Magazine


The Decline and Fall of David Cameron’s Tory Centrism

David Cameron is in trouble. His Tory party is fraying, with conservatives fleeing or threatening to flee to right-wing parties and non-conservatives distinctly unimpressed with his flailing dash to the center. He is unable to win over converts or keep his own party in line, and thus his career is fading along with his poll numbers. Last week the Washington Post reported on a Tory revolt in the House of Commons over Cameron’s stance on social issues. And today, the UK edition of GQ magazine hits newsstands and contains an interview with Cameron’s former spokesman which discusses the gains of the prime minister’s intraparty rival.

Though rumors have swirled for quite some time that Cameron was susceptible to a Tory leadership challenge from London Mayor Boris Johnson–who is not a member of the British parliament (though he served until 2008) and thus should not be nearly so close in Cameron’s rearview mirror–the idea that Johnson will replace him is now commonly discussed in terms of when, not if (though perhaps they should be discussing how). Cameron’s former flack, Andy Coulson, was asked by GQ about the Boris effect. The full interview seems to be behind a paywall, but the magazine has released snippets to non-subscribers. When asked for his take on Johnson, Coulson responded:

Boris Johnson desperately wants to be prime minister and David has known that fact longer than most.  When Boris asked me to pass on the message that he was keen to stand as mayor of London, David responded, “Well, if he wins, he’ll want my job next.”  If proof were needed that our PM is a man untroubled by self doubt, it came in his next sentence, “So I think he’ll be a bloody brilliant candidate for us”…..Stabbing David, or anyone else for that matter, in the back would be distinctly off brand — just not very Boris.  He would much prefer to see David fail miserably in the election and ride in on his bike to save party and country.

Though it would likely be easy to find a seat in the Commons for Johnson, and though the premiership has evolved unofficially over time from more modest–and still unofficial, in a strict sense–beginnings, this would be a remarkable turn of events. Born in New York City with family roots scattered across Europe, Johnson is a colorful loose cannon able to appeal to working-class voters despite his classic Eton and Oxford education. That has been the right mix for Londoners, who have now twice elected him over Labour’s “Red” Ken Livingstone. Boris today has a 65 percent approval rating, with “charismatic” being the most popular one-term description of the mayor.

That poll is better for Boris than it looks. YouGov asked respondents which term applies to Johnson: charismatic; sticks to beliefs; natural leader; in touch with ordinary people; strong; decisive; good in a crisis; honest; none of these; don’t know. Almost 60 percent said charismatic, his highest among the choices. YouGov asked respondents the same question of Cameron, and the term chosen the most was: none of these, at 45 percent.

But the idea that Cameron is already a lame duck within his own party, and maybe even about to be replaced by the mayor of London, would mean Cameron has risen fast and fallen faster. How did that happen? It isn’t same-sex marriage, to be sure. Cameron’s vacillating on Britain’s membership in the European Union has been far more consequential an issue to his fellow Tories (and to the party scooping up Tory defectors, UKIP). The Washington Post story gets closer to the answer, when it gets a quote from Tory Lord David Howell:

“Old fossils like me always wondered about this great shift to the promised land of the center,” said Lord David Howell, who served in Thatcher’s conservative cabinet in the 1980s. “Is it really just a journey to a place where no one really likes you anymore?”

In Cameron’s case, the answer appears to be: yes. But it would be more accurate to say that Cameron’s popularity never really existed as prime minister in the first place, and that his steady shift to the center, on the EU and other matters, were the disease and not the cure–though Cameron confused each for its opposite.

Almost exactly one year before the May 2010 general election, Cameron’s Conservative Party polled at 43 percent, which gave them a 16 percent lead in first place. The lead fluctuated, but generally hovered around that mark until it began slipping in the fall and continued dropping into the new year. By mid-April, the lead had completely evaporated, with the Liberal Democrats posting a one-point lead and Labour only seven points behind. Cameron eventually recovered for a seven-point victory that forced a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

What happened? At the risk of oversimplifying, Cameron was beginning to waver on campaign promises months before he even won. Polls in September 2009 found majority support for a national referendum on EU membership. By early October, the Guardian was reporting that “David Cameron retreats on European referendum,” instead promising to “repatriate” some powers back to Britain in lieu of letting the people make the choice. That same article notes that a certain mayor of London publicly disagreed, saying he wanted a referendum “and a lot of people will agree with me.”

There is more to Cameron’s unpopularity than just the EU issue, but it’s indicative of his general governing style: desperately grasping for a centrist solution that will maximize support but which ends up minimizing support, in part because of poor policy ideas and in part because he gives off the impression of a politician in over his head. Once upon a time Cameron benefited from debates about whether Boris Johnson could do any better than he could. If they are now debating whether Boris could possibly do any worse, Cameron is on his way out.

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