In reality, there is no alternative to a medium-term strategy built around drastic deficit reduction, the like of which Britain has not seen since Geoffrey Howe's 1981 Budget, which Margaret Thatcher's economic adviser, Alan Walters, called "the biggest fiscal squeeze of peacetime". That Budget provoked a storm of protest, including the notorious letter to The Times signed by 364 academic economists, warning of dire consequences unless the Thatcher government reversed course. Norman Stone calls that letter a "suicide note", and it is true that the 1981 crisis marked the moment when monetarist ideas from the United States replaced the post-war Keynesian orthodoxy. But the victory of Thatcherism was never a foregone conclusion, even after the Falklands War and her electoral triumph in 1983. "You know, Alan, they may get rid of me for this. At least I shall have gone, knowing that I did the right thing."
Now the challenge for Cameron is to take a similar risk. This time the fiscal squeeze will have to be harsher still, and he must never forget that we are not at peace, but at war — a war not just against the Taliban, but the shadowy forces of global jihad, a war of which no end is yet in sight. Will the condominium with Clegg make it easier or more difficult to gamble? The chances are that coalition government will be more cautious, more conventional, more consensual and less confrontational than the great reforming leaders of the past, who could usually rely on their own majority to provide solid support. But consensus politics is a luxury that the country cannot afford. Cameron will have to gamble, and he has to be able to rely on Clegg. If Cameron finds himself with his back to the wall, beset by the media and perhaps by rebellions in his own ranks, will Clegg back him or sack him? For the junior partner in this coalition has the power, despite their solemn "prenuptial agreement", to bring the whole thing crashing down. At the first Cabinet meeting, Vince Cable observed archly that his Indian in-laws had assured him that arranged marriages were sometimes better than those born out of love. But trust is also a factor in relationships, and Clegg has already shown that he is quite capable of two-timing the Tories. He who sups with the Liberal Democrats needs a long spoon.
The presence of radical reformers of schools and welfare respectively, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, should ensure that the government maintains at least some principles beyond good housekeeping. Gove made a good start by restoring the old departmental title "Education Secretary", instead of his predecessor Ed Balls's amorphous appellation "Children, Schools and Families". That change was first advocated here in Standpoint, in Gove's Dialogue with Chris Woodhead last January. In due course, the education department's responsibilities for child welfare and family policy should be given to Duncan Smith. The nucleus of an authentic Conservative revival is already discernable in the Cabinet, centred on Michael Gove, Liam Fox and IDS. If they are allied with the able and experienced group of Tory ministers just below Cabinet rank, such as Oliver Letwin, David Willetts, Greg Clark, Damian Green and Dominic Grieve, they should be able to put flesh on the bones of the Big Society, which fell so flat with voters at the election. The "decontamination" of the Conservative "brand", which Michael Portillo hails as Cameron's triumph, has in fact left an intellectual vacuum which must now be filled as a matter of urgency. Recruiting Frank Field as poverty czar was a very good start, but leaking the news before he had agreed was crass and nearly scuppered the deal.
The trouble is that the Conservative rank and file know full well that the party ran a lousy election campaign, but the leadership has still not accepted the consequences. The splendid Tim Montgomerie has already set out a detailed critique on ConservativeHome, with which it is hard to disagree. The themes were mixed and muddled, there was no attempt to nail Labour's catastrophic failures, and the public was given no strong positive reason to vote Conservative. Above all, the decision to take part in the TV debates cost Cameron his lead. The strategy in marginal seats using Lord Ashcroft's money yielded disappointing results in some cases, such as Hammersmith and Westminster North. When Cameron conducts his post mortem, as he must, three individuals should take responsibility for the failure to achieve a majority: George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. Of these three, Osborne will have his hands full as Chancellor from now on. Hilton and Coulson have no such excuse. It is necessary for leaders sometimes to be ruthless with their friends, and Cameron should dispense with the Falstaffs of CCHQ forthwith. Lord Ashcroft, too, must take some responsibility: the impression of unaccountable power and influence was damaging to Cameron and he would be wise to keep his distance henceforth.
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