A View from the Left: David Cameron’s lost radicalism

In August 2010, The Economist’s more than usually arresting front cover depicted Prime Minister David Cameron as a punk, sporting a rather natty Union Jack Mohican. Inside, the newspaper somewhat breathlessly hailed Mr Cameron and his still new Coalition Government’s emergence as a “radical force” with their “plans to overhaul the British state”. Radical, decisive, imaginative action on schools, the health service, the police and the welfare state will be risky, the Economist acknowledged, but if these gambles come off then the British Government could provide a template for governments from the US to Greece to follow.

Less than five years on and the Conservative Party today is not the major party of that thrusting new Coalition. It is instead recognisably the Conservative Party of Major, Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard. Radicalism has been ditched for the comfort blanket: a referendum on the EU, more money for pensioners, a ‘crackdown’ – it’s always a crackdown – on welfare recipients. Where did it all go wrong?

Andrew Lansley is where it started to go wrong. Ironically enough, one area where The Economist criticised the Coalition was over its refusal to cut the NHS budget, but by then Mr Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health, had made the funding argument secondary by publishing his white paper on reforming the NHS. It is no great insight to say that the subsequent mess over what became the Health and Social Care Act is probably this Government’s biggest political disaster – along with the 2012 Budget – but it is also clearly where punk Mr Cameron reverted to staid Mr Cameron.

Not surprisingly, the Government learnt lessons from the slow fiasco of the passage of the health bill through Parliament. The chief lesson appeared to be take no risks. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections, for example, were miserable damp squibs, with an embarrassed Government trying its best to ignore a genuinely radical reform that it had bought in.

So it went for the rest of the Government’s programme. Welfare reform has, so far, consisted of the very traditional Conservative goals of cutting the amount of money they give to one group, the young, to boost the amount of money they give to another, the old. Universal Credit is still, apparently, on track, but nobody really knows if it will be implemented. The “Big Society” is a bad joke (and, notably, its big proponent, Steve Hilton, left Downing Street in 2012); planning rules are still as rigid as ever; localism is just a word. The list of big plans backed up by stirring words but quietly shelved goes on.

Perhaps the one exception to all of this is education reform, but even then this was often presented by the Coalition as a mere extension of Labour’s initial work on academies. The driving force behind the radicalism seen at the Department for Education is no longer even there, with the aggressive visionary Michael Gove replaced by the much more emollient Nicky Morgan.

Other factors have hurt. The rise of UKIP has made the Conservative party turn within itself, hoping to attract back UKIP voters with old-style Tory policies. The weakness of the Liberal Democrats has led to the marginalisation of a party that, whatever its other problems, could it least be serious about shaking up the state. And the Prime Minister has hardly helped himself: Mr Cameron, despite the best efforts of The Economist’s designers, is no punk, and his tendency to flee back to safe Tory territory at the first sign of trouble has only been bolstered by the relentless hammering of traditional Conservative messages advocated by the Tory strategist Lynton Crosby.

This is a shame, for the Conservatives and for the country. The constant message pushed by Mr Crosby about Labour’s love for welfare shirkers appears to be doing the Tories no good at all: however bad Labour are (and they are bad), they are still a couple of crucial percentage points ahead in most polls.

And the retreat from radicalism is bad for the country too, not least because Ed Miliband’s Labour is emphatically not a reforming party itself. Yet the problems Britain has will remain – the health service will still need to treat people who keep getting older; young people in London will keep being priced out of the housing market; the British state itself will not decentralise by magic.

“Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” one of the original punks, Johnny Rotten, once famously sneered at fans. Many observers of Mr Cameron’s Government, swept away in the initial optimism of 2010, will recognise the sentiment.