Saturday, March 26, 2016

The IDS resignation, the EU referendum, and Cameron: a Conservative crisis of Cameron's making

A week is a long time in politics; a year a lifetime.

Last May the Tories unexpectedly won the general election. After proving all the polls wrong, it left Cameron and Osborne with a definitive mandate to continue their plan of austerity and "reform". Unencumbered by being in a coalition with the LibDems, Cameron's government were free to pursue their aims.
Cameron came to government with a clear agenda to completely restructure how government is done, and also how government is perceived by the public. It was this "agenda" that was so catagorically trashed by Iain Duncan Smith when he resigned.

The roots of the IDS resignation go deep, back to the time when he was Conservative leader, and Cameron and Osborne were advising him on his speeches. The resignation spoke of wounded pride and bitterness at the way the "power duo" were running the government as an exclusive and divisive clique.
Cameron and Osborne had been the "rising stars" of the party in the years after the 2001 election, culminating in Cameron's successful bid to become leader after the failure of the election of 2005. From this point onward, it was Cameron and Osborne, with their neatly dovetailing personalities, that dominated the party's direction. This dominance has been self-evident ever since - up to now.

The spring budget can be called the high-point of the dominance of the "power duo": self-evident from the congratulatory response from Cameron and his intimates at the end of Osborne's budget speech to the look of smug satisfaction on Osborne's face at the end of it.

It was in the hours after this that things quickly began to unravel.

The manner of the IDS resignation was certainly the most high-profile and damning incident of its kind that has been seen since the resignation of Geoffrey Howe more than twenty-five years ago. It is also the first time in more than a generation that a minister has resigned over the budget.

As IDS alluded to, this has been a long time coming, but also has been orchestrated for maximum effect. To Cameron and Osborne, it is clear that politics is something of a "game" to them; Cameron is the superficially-charming, ideology-free careerist, while Osborne is the charisma-free, deviously-smart schemer. This is how their talents have dovetailed so fortuitously for them; equally, it is this opportunistic "dovetailing" of their talents that has ultimately brought about the divine vengeance of IDS.

However sceptically you may view IDS motivations, he has said that the entered politics to make a genuine difference. And as he said in interview, he views Cameron and Osborne's agenda as little more than amoral and divisive politicking, seeking success through a policy of "divide and rule" among the electorate. The "power duo" appear to care little about the disadvantaged because they do not vote Tory; this is what makes it so easy to scapegoat them as "skivers". Equally, this is also what makes it so easy for them to ignore - and even attack - the younger generation in order to indulge the "grey vote": a cynical manipulation (at the expense of the government's actual fortunes) to curry favour with those who are more likely to vote. Last year, this strategy worked to a tee.

In fact, it worked too well. For by cynically destroying their coalition partners the LibDems, it left the Conservatives with an absolute majority - and a headache to actually put their manifesto pledges into practice. As has been alluded to, it was always clear that the Tories were expecting for (at best) a resumption of the coalition, allowing them to dump some of their more fantastical fiscal ideas for the sake of compromise. As this didn't happen, it left Osborne with a lot of "creative accounting", which finally caught up with him in this month's budget. This time, it was "Omnishambles 2: the sequel". And this time, it was personal.

The Conservative Party itself is a coalition of two main flanks, and has been since at least Thatcher's time. Roughly divided between the pro-European "moderates" and Euro-sceptic (for wont of a better word) "hardliners", IDS belonged in the latter camp. The loss of the 2005 election saw "Camborne" rise to the leadership, with their own, 21st century brand of a moderate, "One Nation" Conservativism. They saw that it was the dominance of the Euro-sceptic "head-bangers" who were destroying the Tories' chances of winning power.
With the 2010 election, the chance to form a coalition with the LibDems was therefore a opportunity too good to miss: it would allow Cameron and Osborne a legitimate reason to sideline the Tory right, by making their positioning as a "middle ground" between the centrism of the LibDems and the hard-right "head-bangers" in their own party.

This was clever positioning, but all too clever by half. This was not "conviction politics", but mere "product placement", as IDS clearly saw. At the same time, his department, and his own ideas of welfare reform (whatever your view on them), became a victim to the superficial whims of Osborne in particular. Osborne and Cameron were in favour of austerity, but only really as a trap for Labour and a tool for re-election, rather than a genuine fiscal crusade. This is why austerity in the UK - as awful as it has been for those on the receiving end - is still a drop in the ocean compared to the experience of Ireland or Greece. For those that complained about the highly-unequal application of the policy on government departments, Osborne could either blame their LibDem coalition partners or the need to be firm on austerity, depending on who he was talking to.

Then there was the issue of Europe, which is in fact the true cause of Cameron's hubris and miscalculation in particular. While Europe was not the given reason for IDS' resignation, he also knew - as an arch Euro-sceptic - that he would face the chop in a post-referendum re-shuffle. So he had nothing to lose by resigning now, and it would almost certainly benefit the fortunes of his allies in the Euro-sceptic camp.
The fact that the UK is to have a referendum at all is simply due to the whim - and opportunism - of David Cameron. This in itself tells us everything about the Prime Minister's personality.

In truth, the referendum was talked about at a moment of Cameron's weakness, with the rising spectre of UKIP, from the middle of the last parliament onwards. His pledge to a referendum in the next parliament was therefore a sop to the hard-right of his party, as a tactic to neutralise the threat from UKIP. This is what European leaders find so incredible: that David Cameron would risk the UK's membership of the EU simply as a measure of controlling his party's internal divisions. It is certainly a sign of David Cameron's sense of perspective, or astonishing lack of it.

In this sense, the LibDems in coalition acted as a political buffer or shock absorber to "Camborne" for the internal divisions of the Conservative Party, especially over Europe. Winning the election last year was, in some ways, a disaster for the "power duo", for it left them completely exposed to the right of the party. And by opening up the issue of Europe in as raw a manner as the referendum has, it guaranteed that Tory divisions would come boiling to the surface sooner or later.
Again, Cameron and Osborne's high-handed and autocratic manner of dealing with the referendum has added further evidence of their dismissive and disdainful attitude towards "outsiders". The budget and its immediate fallout were simply a manifestation of all these animosities that have been brooding amongst that wing of the party since the Conservatives gained power in 2010. IDS simply articulated in words the source of those animosities in his resignation. The uproar now among the local party over the planned enforced conversion of all schools to academies (which wasn't even in the party's manifesto last year) is simply another example of how remote from the party the "power duo" have now become.

After the fallout from the budget fiasco and the IDS resignation, many in the party are looking at the time after the referendum, without Osborne and Cameron running the government - and the party - like their own private fiefdom. It's not difficult to imagine this scenario; in fact, it appears more and more likely that Cameron and Osborne will be forced out soon afterwards because they no longer represent the party itself, but simply see the party as a vehicle for their own cack-handed schemes.
In this sense, the referendum may well prove to be Cameron hoisting himself by his own petard. That Cameron did not see this as a real possibility - or was reckless enough to think it worth the risk - is deeply telling.
In trying to out-do Thatcher on Europe, Cameron may well end up out-doing the failure that was John Major. It would be fitting if Cameron were indeed brought down by Europe, for it would symbolise everything about the man: the ego; the superficiality; the hubris.

And then, the UK might have Boris Johnson to look forward to as his successor: replacing one superficial careerist for another...

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