David Cameron detoxified the Tories, but on terms that led to his downfall

As the former PM steps down as MP, what lessons are there for Theresa May?


The boy who played with fire

David Cameron’s greatest achievement was to make the Conservative Party seem less horrible. Or rather, just horrible enough to please the right-wingers, but not so horrible as to scare off everyone else.

His public relations efforts to ‘detoxify the Tory brand’ returned the party to government in 2010, albeit in coalition with the Lib Dems. (This might not seem a great victory for Cameronism, but see if you can imagine Nick Clegg forming a coalition with Cameron’s predecessor, Michael ‘spooky’ Howard.)

Five years later, despite leading an unpopular government, and enacting a regime of social and economic vandalism and cruelty, Cameron’s party was re-elected with a majority – its first in 23 years.

But the balancing act required to bring this about ultimately lead to his downfall.

It went like this. To make the Tories palatable to young, urban, middle-class type voters, Cameron had to leave reactionary views on social issues like abortion, gay rights, anti-discrimination laws and climate change off the agenda, and come across like a modern liberal.

But to keep the right of his party and the country on side – especially with the rise of UKIP – he had to act tough on public spending, immigration, terrorism, and the European Union.

This was always a risky strategy. For one thing, many of the first category work in the public sector, or are descended from (or married to, or friends with) immigrants, and are liable to forget the things you’re not being a jerk about in the general bonfire of public services and common decency.

Meanwhile, the second group will not be satisfied with anything short of total victory, especially when they have to bite the bullet on gay marriage and the rest.

As he walked this tightrope, Cameron’s political (rather than electoral) agenda – that of running the country like a business, and in the interests of the rich, with an upward redistribution of wealth and a market-based society – meant he had to beat up on the poor at every opportunity.

So public spending had to be slashed to stop us turning into Greece, or whatever it was, and those still suffering from the financial crash had to be punished for being poor in the first place.

Promising a referendum on EU membership must have seemed a masterstroke. Give the right-wing what they want, beat them in a public vote, and be home in time for tea, settling the matter for a generation. After all, it worked on Scottish Independence, didn’t it?

What Cameron didn’t bank on was the boomerang effect of his Thatcherite policies towards the poor and his bid to out-UKIP UKIP on immigration.

Nor did he expect his old school chum Boris Johnson would attack him as a tool of the rich and a breaker of promises – a national traitor working for multinational corporations, looking to flood our country with barbarian hordes of cheap labour.

But he shouldn’t have been surprised. Cynical demagogues can always take advantage of a pulverised nation – and after all, it was Cameron who did much of the pulverising.

Even rhetorically they were cutting with the grain, picking up the threads he left and promising to deliver where Cameron had lied – fewer immigrants, greater prosperity, more money for the NHS.

Thus the very forces he had helped to create – a mass constituency of pain and resentment – sent him packing on June 24, in a victory for the kind of toxic politics he had supposedly vanquished to become Prime Minister.

In a similar way to his counterparts in America, Cameron summoned into being a creature he could not control. He played with fire, perhaps not ignorant of its being hot, but believing it would burn only his enemies. In the end it swallowed him like kindling, the better to light his ugly works.

What does this mean for Theresa May? As the woman who coined the term ‘nasty party’ for the Tories, and a backer of the need for brand repair, May could be seen as an archetypal Cameronist. Her social justice posture might be a break with the past, or it could be merely a variation on the same theme, that of Tory populism.

Indeed, she made a point in her first Prime Minister’s Questions of defending austerity in purely Thatcherite terms.

This – coupled with her willingness to use EU migrants as bargaining chips and play the Cheshire Cat on her Brexit plans – implies she could be about to replicate the very conditions that toppled Cameron, and delivered her into office.

Adam Barnett is staff writer for Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter @AdamBarnett13 

See: Why not call ‘Left-wing’ Theresa May’s bluff?

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