Secret of David Cameron’s Success

Member Group : Susquehanna Valley Center

At five minutes to ten on Thursday evening, May 7, 2015, David Cameron,
prime minister of the United Kingdom for perhaps only a few hours longer,
was sitting at home in Dean, Oxfordshire, feeling gloomy. The exit polls
were due at ten o’clock, and the signs weren’t promising. For a month,
opinion polls hadn’t budged, and on all but the most optimistic of
readings, they showed Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, becoming Britain’s
next prime minister. During the day, one of Cameron’s trusted former
advisors, fresh from some voter research of his own, phoned to say that the
early voting seemed to reflect the polls. The prime minister should prepare
for defeat.

There was some cause for hope: Labour couldn’t win a majority. And it
looked as though the Conservatives would have more seats than the main
opposition, who were going to lose heavily in Scotland. But it seemed
unlikely that the Tories would win enough seats to be able to form any sort
of governing coalition. They might, perhaps, win 270 seats but would then
need other parties to take them up to 323 and majority control of the House
of Commons.

And then Big Ben struck ten. The BBC announced first that, as expected, the
Conservatives would remain the largest party in the new Parliament. Then,
to Cameron’s delight—and disbelief—the preliminary figures were announced:
the Conservative Party would win 316 seats to Labour’s 238. As the night
wore on, the news got better. The Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s junior
coalition partner, had started the night with 57 seats and ended with only
eight. Labour won almost no seats at the expense of Conservatives and lost
almost its entire Scottish contingent. (The Scottish Nationalists won 56
seats, including all but three seats in Scotland.) And the Conservatives?
They finished with 331 seats and a parliamentary majority. Cameron remained
prime minister.

The 2015 elections marked the first time in nearly a century that a British
governing party had increased its share of the vote after a full term in
office. The achievement makes Cameron one of the most successful political
leaders in British history. How did he do it?

The story begins in 1997, when, after 18 years of Conservative Party power,
Tony Blair’s Labour Party won a landslide victory. It was the worst Tory
result for more than 150 years, and the party wasn’t sure how it had
happened. Had people turned against the Conservatives because they resented
the party of Margaret Thatcher and wanted more spending on public services?
Or, fed up with a party that no longer seemed to trust its instincts, had
they punished the Tories for abandoning Thatcher’s robust leadership in
favor of the more conciliatory John Major? It is only a slight caricature
to say that the conclusion that the party needed to rediscover Thatcherism
won out. That premise united the party and suited the available leadership
candidates, and no one had a better idea.

But it didn’t work. Tony Blair took advantage of good economic conditions,
his own personal moderation, and brilliant communications skills to win two
more elections. In 2001, the Conservatives gained just one seat; in 2005,
they picked up only 33. After eight years out of power, the Conservatives
held just 198 seats, one of the weakest Tory positions in modern history.

Enter David Cameron. In 2005, having served in Parliament only four years
and not yet 40, Cameron declared his candidacy for the vacant Conservative
leadership. Few gave him a chance, but his timing was perfect. The
Conservative Party was fed up with losing and more willing to take risks in
order to win again. Cameron wowed a party conference with a charismatic
performance, the impact of which was far out of proportion to its content.
He talked of the need for change and of the importance of optimism and
accepting the modern world. He reassured the party faithful that he opposed
British adoption of the euro; but in other ways, he wore his ideology
lightly. Central to his victory were insights from polling, which showed
that, when asked about issues such as immigration policy, voters expressed
views resembling official Conservative positions. Yet when told that these
were Tory positions, voters rejected them.

Cameron offered the chance to "detoxify the party’s brand," as pundits put
it. He was a young family man who seemed kind and modern—a different kind
of Tory. Taking office, the new Conservative leader made a dazzling first
impression, much of it pure style. He rode a bicycle, he was pictured often
with his children, and he was witty and confident in the House of Commons,
even when he went up against Prime Minister Tony Blair. He had the look of
a winner.

His main policy moves were to change the subjects that Tories usually spoke
about. He didn’t shift the party’s positions on immigration or Europe—he
just stopped, as he called it, "banging on about them." He found a new
formula to describe Tory tax-cutting, proposing to "share the proceeds of
growth between higher spending and lower tax." This was a clever way of
rebranding the traditional party policy of ensuring that the state grew
more slowly than the economy. Cameron talked a good deal about contemporary
concerns, such as the environment, obesity, and social obligation. He said
that Conservatives should not always be talking about what they would
"bring back"—in the past, they had pledged to "bring back selective
schools" or "bring back capital punishment" or "bring back imperial

Cameron’s experience caring for his disabled son, Ivan, who tragically
died, reassured voters that he cared about the National Health Service and,
to an extent, exempted him from traditional Tory political liabilities on
health policy. This was no small advantage to gain. He also tackled head-on
the well-worn notion that Conservatives believe that "there is no such
thing as society." This much-distorted statement of Margaret Thatcher’s was
intended as a corrective to the idea that "society" can pay for things, or
that "society" can be to blame for the deeds of individuals or families. It
was a statement about personal responsibility, yet the quotation had long
been used to suggest that Conservatives didn’t believe in community or in
social obligation.

To clear it up, Cameron stated clearly that Conservatives do believe in
society, "but it is not the same thing as the state." From this formulation
arose his signature idea—the Big Society. Through a combination of such
measures as decentralization of power to local communities, use of the
bully pulpit, encouragement of charities as deliverers of public services,
and the creation of independent schools, Conservatives would create
stronger social support than the big state provided.

Cameron’s mix of policy, priority, and tone proved attractive, and he
soared in the polls. He had created an approach that might be called
warm-weather modernization, well adapted to the politics of the long boom.
Then, with the financial crisis and subsequent major recession, the weather
turned cold.

Despite a downturn in fortune after Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair in
mid-Parliament, Cameron always looked like the favorite to become prime
minister. In the months before the 2010 election, however, his lead faded
slightly, for two reasons. The first was the decision by Cameron and his
shadow chancellor and right-hand man George Osborne to come clean (more or
less) about cutting public spending. They did not, by any means, indicate
the full program of cuts to come, but they hinted at it and gave some
examples—including a public-sector pay freeze. The second reason is that
the Big Society, never a strong electoral factor, whatever its policy
strengths, looked eccentric and irrelevant at a time of economic crisis. In
May 2010, therefore, the Conservatives were the largest party and the
result was one of the biggest swings and seat gains in modern times, but
Cameron didn’t win the anticipated majority. Moving swiftly, Cameron formed
a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, essentially swapping a referendum
on voting reform (which the Tories won, defeating the Liberal Democratic
plan) for Liberal support of his tough economic program.

Straightaway, the chancellor of the exchequer announced that the coalition
would raise taxes and cut spending in roughly a 20:80 ratio, with the goal
of reaching a balanced budget before the end of the parliamentary term.
What became known as the austerity program was internationally
controversial. Was it really necessary? Was it counterproductive? The Nobel
economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman led the critical charge
against it. He regarded the Cameron policy as stupid and those who
advocated it as ignorant. The facts have not been kind to his thesis.
Despite eurozone troubles, which reduced exports and hurt consumer
confidence, the British economy grew at a comparable rate with that of the
U.S., with its huge stimulus. A crisis of confidence among creditors, a
real possibility in 2010, was avoided. And a great deal of progress was
made on reducing a structural deficit that had already been too large when
the financial crisis hit. The government had capitalized on a rare moment
when people were willing to accept spending reductions.

The decision to reduce the deficit was not, of course, merely a
macroeconomic one. It also required big cuts in public spending, forcing
the pace of public-service reform. The government agreed to protect the
real value of pensions, not to cut health spending (the NHS being almost a
national religion in Britain and the Tories not trusted with it), to
maintain education and science spending, and, most controversially, to meet
the international aid target of 0.7 percent of national income—a promise
that was made in better times but that the prime minister would find hard
to abandon, even if he wished to.

The Liberal Democrats had insisted on implementing their policy of raising
the starting salary before one must pay income tax to £10,000 (it was well
on its way to £11,000 by the end of Parliament). This meant that in some
unprotected departments, including the administration of justice, policing,
and arts and rural affairs, Parliament had to make appropriations cuts of
up to 20 percent. A program of reorganization, contracting out services,
cutting central administration, and using information technology more
effectively allowed these cuts to be made without creating severe political
problems. Indeed, as police-force numbers shrank, so did crime. And as
local government spending went down, satisfaction ratings for local
government services went up.

Rather unexpectedly (at least for British politicians), large reductions in
welfare spending, which the government had worried about, proved hugely
popular—in particular, placing a cap on the total amount that one household
could receive. The government argued that nobody should receive more in
benefits than the average family earned working. Labour offered no
effective alternative.

Still, the Big Society’s electoral impact is debatable. The language about
empowerment and community helped Cameron project himself as a new kind of
conservative, but voters, while interested in better public services,
seemed remarkably unmotivated by the opportunity for greater control over
these services, including the chance to set up their own local schools. And
when, in mid-Parliament, strategy director Steve Hilton left Downing Street
for personal reasons, Cameron began concentrating more on his economic
message, bringing in the Australian Lynton Crosby to run his reelection
campaign. The Big Society wasn’t mentioned.

The strong consensus among political analysts in Britain is that the Big
Society idea was a flop and has now been abandoned—yet much of what Cameron
spoke about has become policy.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, set the pace. Alongside policies to
make exams more rigorous and toughen teaching standards, Gove set out to
establish new types of schools—"free" schools. Inspired somewhat by
Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which British Conservative
politicians have always admired, free schools are set up by parents or
teachers with a distinct ethos—emphasizing traditional standards, for
instance, or reading. Today, 252 free schools operate in Britain, a tiny
percentage of the total number of schools (more than 20,000). But the
government has also let thousands of existing schools become academies,
which operate independent of local government control and often involve
external sponsors—similar to American charter schools. Together, the free
schools and academies now account for 21.6 percent of Britain’s state
schools. Students in these schools have achieved qualifications in math and
English at 5 percent higher rates than students in regular state schools.

Other results proved more disappointing. Few voters turned out for
police-commissioner elections—a new reform—and some localities defeated
efforts to turn their governing authorities into mayoralties. Both these
moves had been designed to encourage greater local leadership and civic

But the government did not give up. It set up a system that enabled groups
of local authorities to band together and bid for funding that would
otherwise have been controlled by central government. As part of the deal,
the larger areas agreed to elect mayors. The result has been a surge of
political momentum behind the idea of an alternative economic center to
London in the north of England, with transport and political links between
previously isolated small cities.

Riots in several British cities in summer 2011 inspired another successful
Big Society program. The government noted that 120,000 of the most troubled
families accounted for £9 billion of public spending—£8 billion of which
was spent on reacting to these families’ problems, while only £1 billion
went toward prevention. The Troubled Families Programme began with a £448
million budget drawn from several departments, including Education, Work
and Pensions, Justice, Home Office and Communities, and Local Government.
Local councils tapped this shared funding to design programs in their
areas. Caseworkers were assigned to each family, and continued funding was
made contingent on results—getting children back into school, putting
adults back to work or on a path to work, and reducing youth crime and
antisocial behavior.

The results have been promising. The average savings to the taxpayer per
troubled family was £12,000—more than twice the average cost of the
program’s intervention, at £5,493, according to a 2014 government report
that studied costs and benefits across seven areas. In Manchester, for
every £1 invested in the program, £2.20 in benefits have been realized.
These efforts have helped more than 100,000 families cease the
activities—truancy, crime, unemployment, antisocial behavior—that got them
identified in the first place.

In sum, the Big Society has been and remains a pillar of Cameron’s program,
even if, as a political theme, it was not a success.

As the 2015 election approached, Cameron came under pressure to make
concessions to the UK Independence Party (UKIP), an anti-EU and,
increasingly, anti-immigrant group that seemed a threat to Tories
everywhere. The prime minister agreed to a referendum on Europe that had
wide Conservative support, but he quickly realized that he could never
outbid UKIP on immigration. So he reverted to a tactic that has worked for
him in the past: he stopped talking about the issue. In the election, UKIP
won 12 percent of the vote, much of it taken from Labour, but only one seat
in Parliament.

During the last few weeks of the campaign, Cameron waved a letter
incautiously left behind on his desk by the previous Labour treasury
minister as a joke. "Sorry," it said, "there’s no money left." This attack
proved devastatingly effective. A stronger Labour rival than Ed Miliband
might have done better at the ballot box, and a weaker economy would
certainly have tightened the election. The economy was by far the most
important factor in the 2015 Tory victory, with only doubts about Miliband
running it close. Labour ran a campaign designed to highlight living
standards and found that they were emphasizing a Tory strength rather than
exposing a weakness. In the end, David Cameron managed to make his
policies—which were actually quite bold—seem like the only reasonable
alternative, while fashioning himself as a decent man doing his best. And
people rather liked that.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of the Times (of London).

This originally appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of City Journal.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder
the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those
of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.