Cameron: More Heath than Thatcher?

Of course such a proposition is tantamount to someone questioning your parentage in modern Conservative circles. What is often overlooked, however, is that back in 1970 Heath campaigned on the proto-Thatcherite platform of spending cuts, smaller government, removing support for “lame duck” industries and less welfare spending.

Sound familiar?

Heath ‘talked the talk’ but then performed a complete volte face in office amid the political and economic pressures of the early 70s. Geoffrey Goodman’s Tribune review of Philip Ziegler’s new biography of Heath analyses his extraordinary transformation.

So what of Mr Cameron? Will he too ‘do a Heath?’ At the moment, he seems dead-set on emulating his heroine, Mrs Thatcher, and handbagging his way into the history books. Indeed the scale of change he is promising to oversee is arguably even greater than Thatcher’s.

As The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins recently put it:

“Cameron is seeking to redefine the individual’s relationship with the state more radically than anyone since the 40s.”

The scale of the Government’s cuts will require the state to retrench from entire areas of current activity. Whole groups in society will be affected in new and unexpected ways. In these early days, the prime minister remains bullish about the cuts to come; as he wrote in The Sunday Times recently:

“There will be some things we genuinely value that will have to go.”

But David Cameron is in danger of beginning to resemble a pugilist in a circus boxing booth with a snaking queue of opponents busily removing their jackets and rolling-up their sleeves as they seek to take him on.

He must contend with aggrieved public sector workers, professional bodies, business groups, environmentalists, the military establishment, government contractors and police chiefs. The list grows each day. Already government spin doctors are running around Whitehall frantically trying to dampen down PR blazes created by the scale of the changes proposed – and the hackles, inevitably, raised.

Of course, the prime minister’s opponents will not abide by Marquis of Queensbury rules once the rough stuff really begins in the autumn. Ministers will learn that it is simply not enough to make a tough-sounding announcement and assume delivery neatly follows. That was the criticism the Tories were all too fond of making about the last Labour government. But they are set on an identical course.

Ministers are busily ripping Labour’s wallpaper off the living room walls but they have not thought what they will put in its place. In many policy areas, they still haven’t agreed the colour scheme. Scrapping the Audit Commission, regional development agencies, primary care trusts, the Infrastructure Planning Commission and other quangos is the easy bit. But what replaces them, if anything?

The reaction of coalition MPs to the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme should give ministers pause for thought. The yelping from some Conservative and Lib Dem MPs was just as audible as the fury from the Labour side.

As we head towards October’s spending review there will be many other ‘real’ cuts to make. The Economist recently hailed Britain as “the West’s test-tube” but the Government’s superficial boldness may not withstand much more pressure; especially if the economy falters because of its dilettante experimentation.

Mr Cameron does not have it all his own way. We tend to take it for granted that prime ministers will have enough parliamentary insulation to secure the changes they want to see. But Mr Cameron has no such guarantee.

The prime minister will find that more and more of his time is eaten up persuading his nervy new backbenchers to support the government’s radical prospectus. And he will need to try twice as hard with the Lib Dems. Persuasion, pragmatism and deal-making will become a much larger part of his day job than they were for either Tony Blair or Mrs Thatcher. The energy for breaking new ground may give way to the frustration of endless rounds of bilateral sweet-talking once the actual, real impact of cuts becomes apparent.

So, like Ted Heath, Mr Cameron may find the attraction of radicalism begins to rub off as his list of opponents grows and his task becomes more arduous. Change is easier to promise than to deliver. And the longer the gap between rhetoric and delivery, the more room for Harold MacMillan’s famous ‘events’ to sneak in and steer him off course.

A dose of Heathite One Nation pragmatism may provide a way out of having to fight quite so many different audiences simultaneously. Indeed, despite the tough talk, Mr Cameron’s wholesale retreat on scrapping school milk for under-5s revealed his pragmatic streak.

Unlike Ted Heath’s education secretary back in 1971 who pressed ahead with scrapping it for over-7s.

Now, what was her name again?

This article, speculating whether David Cameron will shape up to be heir to Mrs Thatcher’s radical Conservative tradition – or whether he may, in fact, end up being compared more to Ted Heath – initially appeared behind the paywall at Regeneration and Renewal

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