Coffee House

David Cameron vs the Middle Ground of politics

3 March 2013

The Prime Minister’s article in today’s Sunday Telegraph is, like all of his major speeches, an uplifting read. It references Sir Keith Joseph, a giant of Conservative thought. Three years ago, I had the honour of delivering the Centre for Policy Studies annual Keith Joseph lecture, as did Cameron three years before that. Here is what Cameron has to say about Sir Keith in his piece today:

‘But the battle for Britain’s future will not be won in lurching to the Right, nor by some cynical attempt to calculate the middle distance between your political opponents and then planting yourself somewhere between them. That is lowest common denominator politics – and it gets you nowhere. The right thing to do is to address the things people care about; to fix yourself firmly in what Keith Joseph called the “common ground” of politics.’

Sir Keith hated the idea of placing yourself in the middle of an SW1 political spectrum and famously urged the Conservatives to find ‘common ground’ with the public. Again today, Cameron denounces ‘cynical’ attempts to place the party in the middle of some imagined spectrum. But what were the Cameroons actually doing at the time? Precisely what Sir Keith warned against. The below extract is from Janan Ganesh’s indispensable biography of George Osborne:

‘Osborne drew a horizontal line on a scrap of paper to represent the political spectrum. He scribbled ‘Tories’ halfway along the right side of the line, ‘Brown’ some way to the left side and ‘Blair’ in its very middle. “That is where we have to be,” he said, jabbing insistently at the Prime Minister’s name.’

Osborne wanted to move the Tories leftwards, to a position equidistant between Brown and Howard. Forget about the wisdom or feasibility of such a strategy: to see politics in this way is to make the fatal mistake that Sir Keith highlighted. The ‘political spectrum’ exists chiefly in the heads of politics graduates and people who have spent too long in the political bubble. Instinctively, Cameron knows that this is the wrong way to do politics. He really should take more of his own advice.

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Show comments
  • NeilMc1

    “The right thing to do is to address the things people care about”.
    Plainly not:
    1. Immigration
    2. The EU
    3. Overseas aid
    4. The destruction of our Defence capability
    5. HS2
    6. Islamisation
    7. Higher taxes
    etc etc! The voters don’t want any of that stuff now do they, even though they vote for it!

  • Grrr8

    So Fraser, what is the different between the “common ground” and mere destructive populism?

    • Colonel Mustard

      Define “mere destructive populism” – preferably without making it a socialist narrative of “anything I disagree with is wrong”.

  • dsbfgrhntgrtyty

    Cameron is completely incompetent

    Sign this petition to restrict Bulgarian and Romanians from entering the UK:

  • Swiss Bob

    The millions of people who became fed up with out-of-control immigration and welfare over the past decade and just want these things sorted out. I know who these people are.

    Yes Cameron, we know, they are the ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, who you detest.

    • Democritus

      Are you agreeing with him?

  • Hexhamgeezer

    An uplifting read? There must have been different versions in different editions then. My version was a miasma of bland calculated PR b0ll0cks.

    If you genuinely thought that pile of ‘speak your weight’ autopilot random cliche generated tosh was a blueprint for 2015 I suggest that you go the whole hog and merge with Meneer Clegg’s crew now and get it over with.

  • Tom Tom

    Fraser, I remember Keith Joseph, I remember meeting him. I recall what he was saying….you seemingly do not. He complained that the polotical system was drifting to the Left by constantly shift and that they had to position themselves where the Public was not where Westminster Consensus was. That would mean no more “leading” the voters to Gay Rights, Abolition of the Death Penalty, Europe, high Public Spending……….and this from a man who could not control Spending as a Minister, who went on to introduce GCSEs and was simply not effective at any job he held.

    So one of Cameron’s speech-writers has hauled this out. What a joke ! One of Lynton’s dog-whistles no doubt

  • outsiderondisqus

    Dear Fraser, Sir Keith Joseph fundamentally changed his position in the light of things as they were. He spent his upbringing and most of his life as a paternalistic liberal Conservative, a bit like Messrs Cameron and Osborne though perhaps with more instinct and less calculation. Having seen that this did not work, he intellectually rethought his position (no doubt with some help from the IEA people).

    I did not know Sir Keith but did meet him before and after in different contexts and got the impression that he would have been happier to stay as a centrist liberal but had to go with what he now believed to be the truth ( which in today’s terms was socially a long way to the right of John Redwood). It was not his natural instinct as it was for Mrs Thatcher and his asperities were, I felt, aimed as much at his former self as at anyone else.

    You could not expect any politician to undergo such a rethink while in high office, only in opposition or exile, like IDS. So it would be ludicrous to expect Mr Cameron to change tack beyond adjusting his rhetoric for tactical political advantage or being forced into a U-turn by events, like Mr Heath (or Ms Osborne on inheritance tax). So the economy will continue to saunter into a dead end and this Government will remain socially out of touch so long as it continues. .

    • Tom Tom

      Keith Joseph could not connect with people. He was the heir to Bovis Construction married to a Guggenheim, a Jewish intellectual unable to lead people or inspire anyone outside a seminar room. Whatever views he had were simply those of a man bewildered by the political landscape but having a Road To Serfdom moment. He was very keen on Hayek and on reading lists and pointing out how skewed public libraries were in blocking Kipling and other works but stocking up on ideological leftist books

    • FF42

      What Keith Joseph advocated was what we now call Thatcherism. Leaving aside the question of whether that philosophy is the best for the country, is it also the most effective way to attract votes to the Conservative Party? if you don’t have the votes and the seats you can’t govern, at which point the rest of the philosophy becomes irrelevant.

      David Cameron has a tricky job because he needs to recruit votes in the centre ground while also preventing votes drifting right to UKIP. A Thatcherite messages alienates the first group whiling attracting the second. The risks are that he veers to the right but potential supporters still vote UKIP or he tacks to the centre and people vote Lib Dem or Labour anyway. Unfortunately there seems to be evidence of both happening at the same time.

      Mrs Thatcher didn’t have to deal with any of this because unlike Mr Cameron she faced a divided opposition.

      • Tom Tom

        Keith Joseph was going to stand against Heath but knew he could not get enough votes, so Airey Neave put up Thatcher instead

      • Tom Tom

        Conservatives had been out of power for 5 years when Thatcher too office; she had been Leader for 4 years. She had North Sea Oil. Cameron was elected Leader 8 years after Conservatives lost office and took office in coalition 13 years after the last Conservative government. He was 8 years old when Heath left office. There is no point in taking of the 1970s – he doesn’t remember them nor does Fraser Nelson born in 1972

  • Daniel Maris

    “Osborne drew a horizontal line on a scrap of paper to represent the
    political spectrum. He scribbled ‘Tories’ halfway along the right side
    of the line, ‘Brown’ some way to the left side and ‘Blair’ in its very
    middle. “That is where we have to be,” he said, jabbing insistently at
    the Prime Minister’s name.”

    Why am I not surprised by that? Because I always thought Osborne was dismally dull and alarmingly unoriginal – which explains in part why he has been such a useless Chancellor.

    It’s not that I am a “right winger” – but it is that I think the political landscape has changed over the last 10 years, a development which seems to have escaped Osborne. We are having to cope with mass immigration on an unprecedented scale which is destabilising our society, globalisation of the world economy which is destablising our economy and the unrelenting march of the EU to superstatehood, which is destabilising our constitution.

    • Tom Tom

      Osborne is a kid who spent too much time with his own kind and too little time with people

      • Mycroft

        His own kind being lizards presumably?

        • Tom Tom

          Possibly. I bow to your inside knowledge. I know exactly what types Osborne mixed with at our alma mater

  • Austin Barry

    This middle ground is somewhere between Hampstead and Islington, the indistinguishable redoubts of the LibDem/Con/Lab conspiracy.

    Our scornful elites should take rather more notice of the roiling, sullenly resentful electorate which sees its only hope in UKIP and, increasingly, will support it. Protest? No, payback.

    • Democritus

      Well only time will tell whether UKIP is just a mid term protest vote or a serious shift in voting. I have seen lots of mid term protests that never make it to general elections and I’m not going to try and predict this one.

  • Justathought

    It is prudent to alter course when heading straight towards an iceberg. The ship’s captain and first lieutenant are asleep at the wheel.

  • Davey12

    We hate the London Luvvies.

    No going back

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Ahhhhh, do I detect the faint stirrings of an Osborne beheading? Why yes, I believe I do.

    We can assume this Speccie teenager, Dave’s favorite apologist, has been given release to broach news of this newly found chasm between the political stupe Osborne and the wise old head Dave, who as we know has always known the proper path.

    So UKIP cleans Dave’s clock, AND his airbrushed by-election candidate, and Osborne gets it in the neck?

    Don’t think it’s going to work, Dave. Once you throw a carcass to the wolves, they just come back hungrier. And I think these wolves have a taste for some nice pink Cameroon veal.

    • xDemosthenesx

      Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth viceroy. Osborne’s demise is mana from heaven – maybe some grown-ups will fill the void.

    • WatTylersGhost

      Please leave these useless numpties in place. The longer that they stay the sooner we will be rid of the Tories.

    • Mycroft

      The problem is that Osborne is plainly not up to it, and his position would be under threat if he wasn’t so close to Cameron. Whether anyone else would do better is another matter.

      • Makroon

        The famous Funding for Lending is also not working.
        So walk the walk Osborne, suspend funding to the banks “that won’t” or “that can’t” with immediate effect, and channel it to those few who can and will.

        • Democritus

          That has been superseded by the Bank of England who introduced their own scheme bypassing the chancellor. BoE have been more successful.

      • Democritus

        How he ever got to be chancellor is a mystery. After leaving uni with a 2nd class degree in modern history he went on to work in several part time low skilled jobs for two years before gaining a position in the Conservative Research Department as head of its Political Section. in 2001 he became an MP and now he’s chancellor.

        He has one strength and one weakness…..Arrogance.

        • Mycroft

          That seems to be the kind of way in which most politicians rise to power these days! The professionalization of politics, it saves them from having to have any experience of the outside world. What does Osborne know about it? And he hasn’t even studied anything relevant at a theoretical level in any rigorous manner.

  • Charlie

    Osborne’s method was all very well while UKIP didn’t then take voters from the right if the conservatives pushed too left

    • Mycroft

      Though is is never very well for a politician to look on a significant section of his support base, especially when many of them (for better or worse) have definite deep-felt principles and he doesn’t.

      • Democritus

        and most are more intelligent.

    • Democritus

      Osborne’s parents paid a fortune for his education, a fortune to get him a job at conservative HQ. Did they pay for him to become chancellor? The Tories have some great talent in their party but they choose their front bench from the Bullingdon club!

  • Mycroft

    I do wish Cameron wouldn’t regard whatever is fashionable in certain metropolitan circles as representing ‘the middle ground’ and anyone who doesn’t agree with it as being somehow beyond the pale. The trouble is that he is desperately superficial, and that rather undermines what sense there is in what he is saying. It is possible to have good conservative ideas which are distinct from the fashionable nonsense of the day without ‘lurching to the right’. To question, for instance, whether it is really sensible to cover the country with wind-farms would doubtless be regarded by him as being ‘right wing’, but it is nothing of the kind.

    • telemachus

      I do hope you are not advocating he follow the reprehensible views of Keith Joseph

      “Making the rich poorer does not make the poor richer, but it does make the state stronger—and it does increase the power of officials and politicians, power more menacing, more permanent and less useful than market power within the rule of law. Inequality of income can only be eliminated at the cost of freedom. The pursuit of income equality will turn this country into a totalitarian slum.”
      ― Keith Joseph

      • James Strong

        Remarkable, you quote this as if it’s reprehensible.
        I would quote it with approval.

        • Span Ows

          Methinks telemachus has misunderstood the quote!

          • Andy

            After 13 years of the Labour Party wrecking education are you surprised ??

            • telemachus

              I saw 13 years of motivating a demoralised teaching staff.
              Now they are being devalued and demotivated by attack after attack by the hated doctrinaire Gove
              He will absolutely not get payment by results past them
              This is much much more demoralising than any thought of targets

      • Reconstruct

        I wonder which element of these truths you would regard as reprehensible? Is it the truth that’s reprehensible, or the willingness to articulate them?

      • Mycroft

        No, I was just observing that Joseph thought about things, but Cameron merely picks up such as ideas as he has from other people. Though it does seem to me that there is some element of truth in that quotation, I think rich people should be properly taxed, but it is no business of the state to try to make them poorer as a specific aim.

    • Daniel Maris

      Wind farms are neither left nor right. All the right wing republicans associated with the Tea Party in the USA supported wind energy in the most recent primaries, for the very good reason that they guarantee energy independence.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        No, that’s false.

        It’s the same the world over. Only socialist envirowhacko nutters are in favor of the windmill stupidity.

        • Democritus

          No it isn’t false. The right wingers in the primaries supported it because they had to, to win votes. The “socialist envirowhacko nutters” must be the votes they are trying to win?

          • the viceroy’s gin

            No, that’s false.

            But prove it, if you can.

            As mentioned, it’s only the socialist envirowhacko nutters who are in favor of the windmill stupidity.

            It’s the same the world over.

      • Mycroft

        What I meant that ‘left wing’ or ‘right wing’ doesn’t really come into it, the matter should be discussed on its merits. And likewise with regard to many other issues in which such labels come to be attached to the positions that people hold, often for the purpose of trying to shut down discussion.

  • Pete Mills

    “This political spectrum exists only in the heads of political scientists” – hmm, I’m not sure this is true. Political opinions correlate with other non-political preferences and personality traits such that you do get liberal people, conservative people etc. The idea of being in the centre ground is such that you put off as few people as possible.

  • John_Page

    You keep referencing “his” speeches and articles. But he doesn’t compose them, does he. The continuing disconnect between his deeds and the words provided for him must be telling you something by now. I can see how you prefer to keep cajoling him, rather than giving him up as a lost cause, but it does start to seem like tediously repetitive whistling in the dark.

  • Magnolia

    Here is my comment from the DT posted last night.
    The PM tells us that he will not lurch to the right and even invokes Keith Joseph and his common ground as support for his own policies which he describes (yet again) as the right thing to do and the things that people care about.
    Now Sir Keith was quite famous for being a thinker and he thought the unthinkable in the seventies when he told us that the poor and deprived would only ever be helped by a wealth creating economy and that a wealth creating economy could only ever happen when the state got out of the way of successful wealth creation by itself getting smaller. It wasn’t always a popular thing to say because it put the needs of the wealth creators before that of nationalised jobs.
    He saw that tax and spend was a dead end and he said so.
    Now Dave is tacking Sir Keith’s name on to a piece of fudge without understanding the breadth of meaning of the great man’s wisdom.
    No one could describe the continuation of Mr Brown’s stealth taxes, increased government spending, continuation of money debasement by QE and the subsequent risks of inflation as anything like a Keith Joseph policy. Quite the reverse in fact. David Cameron is a Blairite and the country is sick of Blairism because it doesn’t work.
    The common ground just moved Keith’s way, not to the right but because it is right.

    • Mycroft

      Absolutely, Joseph thought about things, but Cameron just calculates advantages. He has no distinctive Conservative vision to put forward, it is all a matter of triangulation.

      • Makroon

        He isn’t calculating at all.
        He just picks up random notions fed to him by his gang of inept, out-of-touch, cronies.

        • Mycroft

          To be sure, he could calculate a lot better than he does.

    • Span Ows

      No one could describe the continuation of Mr Brown’s stealth taxes, increased government spending, continuation of money debasement by QE and the subsequent risks of inflation as anything like a Keith Joseph policy. Quite the reverse in fact.

      Indeed but most of those stealth taxes were in the pipeline, as was QE and spending/borrowing for the short term were all foregone conclusions.

      • Magnolia

        I think Osborne put up VAT on my house repairs to 20%.
        I think it was Osborne who gave about £15billion for EU bailouts.
        I think it was Osborne who took away the tax free allowance for higher earners increasing their marginal tax rate to about 60%.
        I think it was Osborne who raided public sector pensions in payment.
        i think it was Osborne who failed to increase the 40% tax band level in line with inflation despite stagnant and falling wages.
        I believe it was Osborne who has received letters from the BOE governor, for about two years, explaining the failure to control inflation.
        So who governs Britain?
        The previous government, the present government, the EU, the markets, the lawyers, the bankers or the people through the ballot box?
        I’m waiting to see the outcome of who will govern Italy in future with much interest and trepidation.

        • Tom Tom

          ” think Osborne put up VAT on my house repairs to 20%.” If you leave it empty for 2 years VAT on renovation drops to 5%. If you knock it down it costs 20% VAT but to build a new house costs 0% VAT

          • Andy

            We should tax new homes at 20% ane remove VAT from renovating property. We could start by renovating all those houses in areas like Liverpool that 2 Jags wanted to demolish.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Judging by what Cameron has said since the Eastleigh result, he response is simply more of the same: endless soundbites and abuse of his opponents but no real engagement with the issues. Commentators keep giving him advice on what he should do but I think it is all to late. He has lost the trust of a majority of voters and of his MPs. His position is terminal. The only question is how long it takes him or his MPs to realise.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yep, whatever our political persuasion I think we can agree we are all sick of these numberless manipulative soundbites. Give us some policy Dave. Some policy that works. So far you’ve produced PR legislation, crappy economic management and useless political strategies.

      • telemachus

        Plenty of policy
        Feed my rich mates
        Soak the poor
        All he forgot was to keep out immigrants
        And that is happily to the benefit of UK PLC

        • Andy

          Oh here you are. We all thought you’d been sent to the Gulag, never to be seen again. We will all try to conceal our bitter disappointment as best we can.

          • Swiss Bob

            It’s a shame the sleaze collective is back to disrupt the discourse here, it’s so much better without these morons dribbling all over every thread

          • telemachus

            One of the poorer orders of the Kruschev era was MVD order 020
            This allowed the revisionists to destroy the socialist experiment and led to the Mafia State of today
            I ask you, under which system were the majority of Russians better off?

            • Mycroft

              Oh my goodness, there are still people around who feel nostalgia for ‘the socialist experiment’! That the Russian have made a mess of their transition to a free market system and political freedom, to end up with gangster capitalism and ‘controlled democracy’, is hardly an argument in favour of that particular experiment.

    • The Red Bladder

      Nonsense the man oversees policy and dictates direction with a rod of Strawberry Jelly.

      • Noa

        That sounds a bit Lib Dem, to me.

        • The Red Bladder

          No their rod is completely different – it’s totally invisible!

          • Wessex Man


            given his posts and his moniker, I would have thought you’d have realised he’s one of Milipede’s lads.

            • The Red Bladder

              You do come out with ’em Smiler! I asked Labour HQ. “We will not be rushed into any position on the composition of rods. However, as a matter of urgency, we will place the matter before our full executive in June or July. The recommendation will then be raised before the full conference in an interactive, inclusive and democratic fashion when a decision may well be made”.

            • The Red Bladder

              Ah yes – the word red, didn’t read medieval history then?

          • NeilMc1

            Not according to Rennards assistants!

    • Makroon

      The only people he listens to are his cronies – Letwin, Willetts, Vaizey, LLewellyn, Goldsmith. They will be the death of him.
      Probably the rummest crew ever allowed to influence government policy.

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