The morning of 24 June 2016 was a memorable one for all sorts of reasons. Amid tumbling currencies and the sound of liberal tears the one memory that has stayed with me is of staring, barely awake and bleary eyed, at the TV as David Cameron stepped out into Downing Street to throw in the towel.
When I had finally decided to turn in only one London counting area was left to report and Leave was so far ahead that I knew it was over. Three hours later, as I desperately tried to re-caffeinate myself, the enormity of what we had achieved finally sunk in. For a moment, I felt a tinge of remorse as a leader I’d campaigned for numerous times over the previous decade announced, with typical grace, that he was leaving the stage. I’d helped accomplish something the hysterical Left never could. Putting this emotional awakening down to lack of sleep in the week leading up to the referendum I quickly pulled myself together and went to face my perplexed work colleagues.
Was I right to dismiss the sadness I felt that morning? Subsequent events suggest not.
For months, we’ve struggled to pin down what Theresa May actually believes and if the creepily titled ‘Forward, Together’ manifesto is anything to go by then the answer is ‘not much Conservative’. It’s a wholesale swallowing of lazy left-of-centre interpretations which places the party to left of Ed Miliband in some policy areas. It aims squarely for the centre-ground and lands somewhere on the left. In row Z. Philosophically, the Conservative platform is entirely collectivist. ‘Forward, Together’, contains 456 instances of the word ‘our’. ‘Your’ is used just 11 times. It contains a reference to the wholly debunked gender pay gap.
Cameron did have his wishy-washy moments – a trip to see melting glaciers springs to mind – that led many to consider him as a PR man on a rebranding exercise. This was unfair – there was a philosophical credo running through his approach to government, in evidence as early as 2006.
To a certain extent, the economic crisis put paid to many elements of Cameron’s vision but injected new life into others. The much-pilloried “Big Society” really was a truly conservative response to many of the challenges of the day. It aimed to empower communities and restore much that gargantuan government and the ‘cradle to grave’ approach had destroyed. As a response to the challenges posed by globalisation it certainly had potential and demonstrated a reforming zeal that May and her inane, endless, hair-of-the-dog chatter about ‘the good government can do’, quite simply lacks.
Cameron embraced the power of markets but favoured the rolling forward of society. As a Liberal Conservative he accepted that freedom reduces inequality. May says ‘We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.’ She exists to govern for governing’s sake.
The policy outcomes of this fundamentally different approach have been laid bare in the manifesto. Yes, Cameron and Osborne wanted the deficit eliminated by 2015 and they failed in that. The 2015 manifesto set the target for eliminating the deficit by 2018 though, missing the original target by three years. Conservative candidates are now fighting on a platform of not running a surplus until ‘the middle of the next decade’ so that government can demonstrate more of the good it can do. More debt, more spending and almost certainly, more taxes.
Very often conservatism lacks a dynamic. It can be argued, probably with some merit, that that is the point. The phrase ‘strong and stable’, which is fast becoming emblematic of the staidest election campaign the Tories have ever run, is almost an extreme parody of what many within the party see as their raison d’être. But the cautious approach adopted by May only really works when in government. Cameron on the other hand had to take the Tories into government from a low base and then build a majority five years later. In retrospect, it’s possible that the scale of that achievement has been massively underappreciated.
Doing so involved uniting a party and doing it so well that both libertarians and one-nationers who currently have daggers drawn over May both felt comfortable, to varying degrees, with his leadership. That May chose to launch an assault on the party’s Libertarians in her first conference speech as leader and has continually sought to caricature large swathes of the party membership as dangerous extremists in the Momentum mould, was telling.
While Cameron often shot down opponents to his right by questioning their desire to see the party win, this didn’t stop him making strong appointments of a libertarian nature when the challenge required it. It’s safe to assume, to take one example, that we’ll never see prison reform on the agenda again. Not least when the person largely responsible for the mess is Prime Minister.
Come back Dave, all is forgiven.
Neil Wilson is CfL Campaigns Director. Follow Neil on Twitter: @libertyneil
Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Attribution: Toms Norde, Valsts kanceleja