It must be hard being David Cameron.
Generally speaking the first term, or the first few years of the first term at least, should be the honeymoon period where parliament and the public skipped merrily behind the cabinet as they build a programme of reform that changes the country for the better.
However, just two years and four months later, the Coalition is floundering in a similar fashion to the final years of Labour’s last term in power. Week after week, month after month, the criticism of government policy from its enemies and increasingly even from its allies has pounded the walls of Whitehall and forced it to relent, retreat and U-turn.
This week has been no exception. It started last Sunday when Tory MP Colonel Bob Stewart revealed that he had been approached to stand as a ‘stalking horse candidate’ in a potential leadership challenge to oust Cameron and put Boris Johnson, the widely popular London Mayor, in his place. Both Stewart and Johnson dismissed the challenge and it seems to have crumbled at the first hurdle. Part of the alleged coup was Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith offering to resign and hand over his safe seat in protest on Cameron’s planned U-turn on the Heathrow third runaway- a policy they both vehemently oppose.
It is unlikely that rumblings of dissent within the party bothers Cameron all that much. None of it is particularly serious because although the backbenchers hate Clegg and the rising stars hate the third runway, they all know the general public hates them more and no-one wants to man the sinking ship. However what will be troubling him is that it is being reported in the media. Whilst he may have previously been grateful for Bob Stewart’s loyalty, on hearing the news he probably wished that Stewart had just kept his mouth shut.
After all, no one wants to vote for a party to put the country back together when it can’t even get itself together. The more and more it looks like the party don’t have faith in the Prime Minister, the more and more the electorate won’t have faith in him.
Then of course, Cameron’s bad week was slightly mollified by the news that the unemployment rate fell by 7000 over the last quarter up until July and encouraged a slight boost in public opinion of him due to his genuinely heartfelt apology to the Hillsborough victims whose names were finally cleared this week. However this good will was soon shot down by the fact that the unemployment rate is still 2.56 million, or 8% of the working population, and youth unemployment has only been reduced by 4000 and is still up 37,000 on the figures from the same quarter in 2011 (figures from the Hansard and the Guardian).
Cameron tried to explain away the fact that 1.02 million young people are out of work by claiming that the majority of these are in Higher Education, a point Ed Miliband used to accused Cameron of ‘complacency’ about the youth situation at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.
Furthermore most pundits are putting the surprise fall in unemployment down to an increase in the number of jobs in London where 90% were temporary jobs for the Olympic and Paralympic games. If this wasn’t enough, Save the Children’s launch of their very first campaign to feed children in the UK highlights once again just how hard the cuts are affecting the poor in this country.
No wonder a YouGov poll released on Saturday had David Cameron trailing on -18% in a poll of the most ‘respected’ politicians (Nick Clegg got -52% and Boris Johnson scored an impressive, for a politician, +25%).
During these ‘dark moments’ when the electoral rule book seems to have been thrown out of the window, commentators and politicians look to the patterns of political history to explain their current predicament and take solace in the way that it all turned out in the end.
One method tried out this week was a remark by one senior Tory MP to the Guardian that
‘David Cameron is no Margaret Thatcher. He’s our Ted Heath’.
Former Prime Minister Edward ‘Ted’ Heath’ ruled Britain from 1970-74 (and presided over Britain’s last attempt at a Coalition government) and has been widely viewed as a failure that paved the way for Margaret Thatcher to enter 10 Downing Street in 1979 after five years in opposition.
They claimed that instead of shoring up his position as he intended, the reshuffle has cost Cameron some of his most valuable ministers and raise questions of cronyism once again, especially with the survival of the now widely hated George Osborne and the promotion of Jeremy Hunt to Secretary of State for Health after he did such a bang up job dealing with the Leveson Inquiry.
If one historical metaphor wasn’t enough for the week, another former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, popped up on the Andrew Marr show this morning on the 20th anniversary of Black Wednesday when Britain crashed out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism controlled by the Bundesbank in Germany- a precursor to the Eurozone) which his cabinet (and Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet directly before her fall in 1990) largely orchestrated. He claimed that, like in the aftermath of the ERM crisis, Britain is on ‘the slow road to recovery’ because of the positive signs of unemployment falling (ignoring the analysis of the trend above and the fact that unemployment is considered a ‘lagging indicator’- that it is it only really reflects the health of the economy a year or so ago i.e. when the UK still had some fragile growth) and the growth in the stock market.
Major argued that, like twenty years ago, Britain can only start to recover ‘from its darkest moment’. In 1992, that was Black Wednesday. Norman Lamont’s comment that ‘there were green shoots’ in the economy was widely condemned even though he was right and the country did return to growth even if it permanently widened the gap between rich and poor for the next twenty years.
However this is not twenty years ago; we can see no green shoots in and amongst the thousands of jobs being lost in the private and public sector, nor can we see them anywhere the estimated 1.6 million children now living in poverty. Nor were they anywhere to be see amongst the ATOS demonstrators at the start of the Paralympic games protesting against the number of people being kicked off disability living allowance.
As a former History student I find it easier than anyone to draw modern parallels with our political past but the endless need to find comfort in the belief that everything is going to be OK because it has done in the past stops us moving forward. The Conservative party can tell each other that Cameron is ‘just their Ted Heath’ and that their new Margaret Thatcher (presumably Boris Johnson or Michael Gove) is just around the corner and preparing to lead them to power for another 18 years. They can then turn around and try to tell us that it can only get better now because ‘this, this and this happened in the past and it turned out alright’.
Yet what good will that do? History alone cannot make the economy grow, it cannot turn exogenous events like the OPEC crisis in 1973 or the Eurozone crisis now in our favour and it certainly can’t predict the future.
The point of History is to learn from it, not to rehash it ad nauseam in the hope it’ll repeat itself. The historical actors that are so revered for the change they brought to the political landscape, like Margaret Thatcher or even Tony Blair, are revered precisely because they did try to break the pattern. Instead of using it like a crutch to explain modern mistakes, these were the sorts of leaders that used it to learn how to change paradigms and created new methods of political engagement that set historical precedents rather than conforming to them. Which is why, rightly or wrongly, they are revered today.
In order to make History, you have to learn to stop living in the shadow of it. Its a guide of what has worked in the past, not what will definitely work in the future.
History explains political behaviour, it does not excuse it.