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David Cameron is a Tory, not a radical. Which is both a strength and a problem.

16 June 2014

There is much to enjoy in Dominic Cummings’ glorious attack on the ghastliness of Britain’s political system. It is a cri-de-coeur from a man who, whatever else may be said of him (and his enemies have plenty to say), has given the matter some thought.

Westminster will swoon at the criticisms of Cameron (‘a sphinx without a riddle’), Ed Llewellyn (‘a classic third-rate suck-up-kick-down sycophant presiding over a shambolic court’) and Craig Oliver (‘just clueless’)  but that’s just the gags, really. The substance is elsewhere. As in:

“MPs have no real knowledge of how to function other than via gimmick and briefings. That’s also how No 10 works. It’s how all of them are incentivised to operate. You get ahead by avoiding cock-ups and coming up with tactical wins, you don’t get ahead by solving very hard problems.”

As for civil servants:

 “The poor buggers are caught between structural dysfunction and politicians running around who don’t really know what they’re doing all day or what the purpose of their being in power is. Everyone thinks there’s some moment, like in a James Bond movie, where you open the door and that’s where the really good people are, but there is no door.”

Well, quite. Politics is difficult and change is even harder. It is much easier just to muddle on through. The state is a Heath Robinson contraption and every year brings fresh bodging that helps get everyone through the day but covers-up the fact no-one really knows how anything works. Sometimes even finding the problem is harder than you might imagine.

Cummings observes that Cameron had a picture of Macmillan on his wall “and that’s all you need to know”. Indeed. Then again, Cameron is a Tory and Cummings is a radical. It is not so surprising that they see things differently. Nor is it surprising that Cummings thinks Cameron could have been bolder and given greater priority to education reform. It’s a view with which I have no small sympathy.

But if it is difficult to make progress in a single department it is obviously vastly – hideously – more difficult to make progress across the entire range of government activity. Cummings is right that focus and grip are as necessary as they are easily lost but if it requires a constant effort to maintain those things in a single department, imagine how much more difficult it is to do so across the whole of government.

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You might say that is part of the problem. Government is too large, too complex, too sclerotic and too intrusive. Again, I would instinctively agree. Blowing the whole thing up and starting again has a certain appeal. But politicians have to answer to an easily-frightened electorate in ways special advisors – even brilliant ones – do not. Winning elections is a non-trivial part of the process, not least since doing so at least prevents the opposition from making things even worse.

The game is a problem made worse by the things you have to do to win the game. Which is depressing and the kind of thing clear-eyed SpAds find especially vexing. But you don’t get to say ‘We’re not playing the game’. Not unless everyone else decides not to as well. And they won’t.

So we are where we are and must make the best of it. Moreover, eventually you reach a point at which you need allies and this too rather requires you to take care of people. You need to bring them with you, otherwise your victories risk proving ephemeral.

Again, that’s less of a problem for the stormtroopers but not everyone can be a stormtrooper and, in any case, stormtroopers alone are not enough.

So, sure, scrapping GCSEs and introducing vouchers (though what are you going to do for rural schools?) are not bad ideas at all. I like them! But if Gove & Co had done all that – and if they had reduced the DoE employment roll by 75% – all hell would have broken out. People would too easily have been persuaded that these folk are crazy zealots running amok.

Advance too far, too quickly and you risk running out of fuel. Moreover you become isolated and vulnerable to counter-attack. You risk seeing your gains wiped-out. I worry that this could happen to Gove’s reforms. Government policy might not move at the pace of its slowest component but it can’t afford to leave too many soldiers behind either.

It may be true that you don’t get ahead in this game by solving really hard problems. But that may be – as in the case of housing policy – because if they could be solved by quick, simple and easy solutions they might have been solved already.

‘What do we want? Incremental progress. When do we want it? In the fullness of time.’ This is not the sort of thing to make a radical heart soar. But it might be the best we can realistically hope for. Not enough but better than the alternatives. That’s one definition of Toryism, anyway.

And if, as Cummings so eloquently demonstrates, it can be tough being a reforming SpAd, it seems reasonable to think it must be even tougher working in the Prime Minister’s team when, by necessity, almost everything requires some kind of trade-off.

Another way of looking at it is this: Cummings (like Gove) is a specialist but Cameron (and his advisors) are generalists. It’s not a surprise that the former sometimes view the latter with something approaching exasperation. Bloody amateurs!

And bloody government is bloody difficult. It would be lovely if it were easier or simpler. It might be better then, too. But I’m not sure every problem is a Gordian Knot that can be solved by a single stroke of a sword.

UPDATE: Dominic Cummings offers more thoughts here. As always, they are worth your time.

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Show comments
  • derekemery

    “I try to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast”

    Doesn’t this sum up the UK political approach?
    e,g, The EU can be reformed
    Add five more of your own choosing- there’s plenty to pick from.

  • global city

    going with incremental change in most fields would be fair enough, if only the Tories were to be radical in one cross cutting one.

    They should have on reaching office cut the legs from under the whole P, cultural Marxist infrastructure in one go. Close departments, repeal legislation, disinvest (stop subsidising) false charities and NGO’s with the slightest whiff of leftwingery, etc.

    The freedom and sense of relief that would sweep the nation from these actions would revive the nation over night.

    Then they could set about with their incremental changes to the NHS, welfare, armed forces and such!

  • allymax bruce

    Hmm; that’s better, Alex’. 21st century Politics is changing at break-neck speed; propelled forward by ever-increasing reams of International Relations (IR), negotiations. Just staying up-to-speed is a difficult process. It’s not like it used-to be in the olden days, you-know.

    “MPs have no real knowledge of how to function other than via gimmick
    and briefings. … You get ahead by avoiding cock-ups and coming
    up with tactical wins, you don’t get ahead by solving very hard
    problems.” (Alex’ Massie). Again, that’s only done now with International conglomeration between, and to, other Nations’ Politicians. ‘British’ Politics is basically ‘managing’ the downfall of all Public Services, while the IR realm takes more and more focus & quality-time out of National Politics. That’s why our Peoples don’t feel ‘enfranchised’, and Politicians are not representing the needs of The People. It’s a curious situation; One Nation, is becoming One World. I wonder what City will be the capital? Hmmm?

  • Terence Hubbard

    Scameron is in fact a Tory he just aint a conservative!

    • Kennybhoy

      Spot on! :-)

      • Marquess of Salisbury

        Cheers sir!

  • Kennybhoy

    One of your better efforts Maister M.

    “Winning elections is a non-trivial part of the process, not least since doing so at least prevents the opposition from making things even worse.

    The game is a problem made worse by the things you have to do to win the game.”


  • Smithersjones2013

    As ever Massie misses the point.

    The reality is Cameron’s greatest flaw is he and his ridiculous Downing Street team don’t even understand that there is a game to be played let alone play it. Their greatest failing is their complete imbecility when it comes to politics. They are witless oafs when it comes to the game. The simple reality is we have a country run by a Prime Minister who has a 1st in Politics from Oxford who, for whatever reason (hubris, stupidity, arrogance, lack of awareness of his surroundings etc etc) is the village idiot when it comes to political strategy

  • Tony_E

    I’m afraid that Cameron is a Tory – and the delusion that people suffer is that they grew up in the Thatcher era and thought she was a Tory – she wasn’t.

    Thatcher was much more ‘economically Liberal’ than any other Tory leader of the 20th Century – she was also much more in touch with the realities of small business than any other Tory of the 20th C. She surrounded herself with hard nosed economic Liberals, people who saw the world totally differently to the Tories who came before her like Heath and Mac.

    In the end, she was the outsider, and once the old guard and their fellow travellers had stripped her of her fellow usurpers, they gathered the strength to wield the knife.

    • Mark Myword

      I think you are right about Mrs T. It was Macmillan who described her as a ‘Manchester School Liberal’ and, whilst he was wrong on many things, on that he was correct.

    • Kennybhoy

      Spot on! :-) :-)

    • Wessex Man

      Well if you are correct, she was still my kind of girl.

  • Mynydd

    I liked Dominic Cummings headline “Cameron bumbles from one shambles to another with no sense of purpose” I only wonder why it took him so long to realise this. Was it brought home to him in just the last couple of week when we have had, prison walkout shambles, the Birmingham schools shambles, the passport shambles, and now the prison overcrowding shambles.

  • FF42

    Dominic Cummings offers more thoughts. As always, they are worth your time.

    Are you sure? They seem completely incoherent to me. It’s not that I disagree with them. I have no idea what he’s on about.

  • Andy

    David Cameron is many things, but a Tory isn’t one of them.

  • MirthaTidville

    I stopped reading after `David Cameron is a Tory`..had to, I was laughing so hard I`ve just come up for breath…………

    • global city

      he has a picture of McMillan in his office was a shocker….not!

  • Kernow Castellan

    In spite of all his autodidacticism, Cummings appears not to have learnt that you cannot impose your ideas, you have to convince people to adopt them, and he is now frustrated that others don’t immediately jump to his conclusion. You cannot hold a carrot in front of the donkey and sprint away, you have to walk at the same speed as the donkey.

    It is a shame that he never worked in business, as this sort of naivety is usually knocked out of people in their first management position. This is the difference between wonky academia, and leadership.

    • norman jones

      He’s not even got what it takes to succeed in academia. About the only places this kind of idea-imposition and after-the-event-whining ‘works’ (and I use that word advisedly) are in journalism or politics.

      • Kernow Castellan

        Ah yes. I should perhaps have said “amateur wonky theorising” rather than “wonky academia”. :-)

  • Wessex Man

    David Cameron is not a Tory, he’s a Labour stooge as he’s proved these last four years!

    If Gove ever by accident became leader of the Tories, you would see a steady return to the party.

    • FF42

      Doubt that. Michael Gove manages to be even less favourably regarded by the public than Nick Clegg. (By some margin too!).

      Mind you, according to the poll, we should sack the lot of them and put Prince William in charge.

      • ButcombeMan

        Gove is “less favourably regarded” only by a small group of the noisy and lefty and the politically engaged. That is not the vast bulk of taxpayers. Gove has been subject to the sort of mindless attacks that the Daily Mail used to get, yet millions read it.

        For those of us with children or grandchildren or even great grandchildren, unable to afford private education for them, Gove has been the best thing to happen to education since the 60s.

        We can SEE education visibly improving, we can see tables and proper reading skills being inculcated. We are witness to huge improvements. Sure he has has not got everything right, partly the problem with hurrying and the 5 year parliament, partly in-built resistance to change from “the blob”, but incompetent and idle teachers are under threat, They are being forced to perform.

        Being low down the scale of our international comparators will no longer do.

        Gove has passion, he has the will get things improved.

        If only Cameron had anything like the same diligence.

        • FF42

          I agree that Mr Gove has an all too rare passion for education. He genuinely wants to improve standards for all children. But he is only the Education Secretary and can’t actually deliver those improvements. Only teachers can do that and he hasn’t carried them with him. In fact they seem pretty united against him, including those of an otherwise conservative bent.

          Ultimately it’s a case of poor leadership on Mr Gove’s part. Which is a shame, because I think his heart is in the right place.

          • ButcombeMan

            The idea that Gove could have carried the few truly useless teachers with him, or even more, the educational establishment, that is so resistant to change, is just fanciful.

            There is just not the time.

            The very suggestion that he could have, is a way of hitting back at him, somehow any failure (it is suggested) is his failure.

            It is not.

            UK education has underperformed internationally, for years.

            Gove is the man for the time.

            Like Thatcher, there came a time when both were necessary, each in their own way. Both after the inevitable long periods of decline under socialism.

        • Last Man Standing

          Actually every person I know seems to hate Gove – even without cause. They all seem to have taken the line that he is wicked in some way. I don’t know anyone who defends him at all – whether left or rightish.

          • Kennybhoy

            Says more about the company you keep than Gove…

          • Wessex Man

            You should get out more actually.

          • ButcombeMan

            You should keep more intelligent company.

            I think I just DID defend him and i explained that Gove has been the subject of mindless attacks.

            When lots of the bubble are critical of Gove it is unsurprising some of the mud sticks, a little. Even if it is unfair.

            Gove is doing things. That makes enemies. He is doing things that needed doing though and the left hate that as it exposes the mess they left..

            I want inadequate teachers to protest. I want some of the less adequate to retire or leave the profession.

            Show me a Minister no one complains about and you show me someone not up to the job.

    • Hello

      Right, because conservatives love radical change. That’s what conservatism means, isn’t it?

      If Gove was leader of the Conservative party, he would obliterate it within 10 months.

      • MirthaTidville

        Ok you loath him, fair enough but he is the only one in the Tory Party that has a belief and a vision and knows where he wants to go.Wessex Man is right though..Gove is a Tory Cameron is not

        • Hello

          I don’t loath him, I just think he’s losing control and left to his own devices will trash his own reforms by being so attached to a “radical” reputation that doesn’t really serve any purpose at this point in a parliament.

        • Count Dooku

          Gove is not a Classic Tory. He’s a modern Thatcherite in the Whiggish mould. I like his style and politics a lot.

      • Kennybhoy

        I do hear you man but maybe a dose of radical change is neccessarry to create, or get back to, something worth conserving…?

        • Hello

          I was criticising “radical” rather than radical. I don’t think the education reforms are anywhere near as radical as they’ve been portrayed.

          I think Gove has used “radicalism” to co-opt the support of the media and to swell a fan base, and maybe that was necessary as a way of drowning out the teaching unions, and to make sure they were cast as reactionaries, but that’s done now.

          What Gove needs now is the support of the public, and that means taking a radical agenda and presenting as a progression.

          What’s wrong with just being a competent reformer, why does he have to be a catalyst?

          • Wessex Man

            I think you are very confused.

      • Wessex Man

        er, before Major stabbed Maggie in the back they loved radical change that turned this country from the ‘sick man’ of Europe into a thriving powerhouse again. then along came Blair, Brown and Cameron and you and the people hate what has been done to it!

      • allymax bruce

        Yes, I agree with you. Gove is the next Tony Bliar; in waiting. Ignore Gove at your peril, England!
        David Cameron really pisssed me off when he tried to be ‘cute’, and asked President Obama for ‘that favour’; I’ve forgiven Cameron now, but he’d better never do that again.
        I’d have David Cameron at the UK / rUK Helm anyday before Gove; and if it wasn’t Cameron, then Theresa May. David just needs to stay calm, and allow his hard work already done take hold; he’s done a lot of good work, and it will bear fruit for him. He doesn’t need to try and push harder to get more. He will win the 2015 General Election if he sits back on his laurels now, basically do-nothing, and look statesman-like. He can only lose it from here on in.

        • Wessex Man

          You’re just trying to mess up the UK after you gone off with the Fat controller arn’t you and of course you want a weakling like Cameron to negotiate with!

          • allymax bruce

            Look at all the brave things Cameron has taken-on, and won in his short time as PM; SSM, stable economy, jobs growth, closed-door immigration, pension reform, debt stabilisation, deficit reduction, relaxing political correctness, EU reform,, and many many more. David Cameron has successfully moved the whole Conservative Party to the left; to where the ‘centre ground’ is now. Not that he’s a lefty; no! He’s a Centre-Right Conservative, but under Labour, Bliar & Brown moved the whole political ground to the Right! Think of all the horrendous laws, curtailment of Free-Speech, and Political Correctness under Labour gov’! What you don’t understand, is that Labour moved the whole political ground to where it suited his Party’s ‘comfort zone’; Labour’s EU conformity! David Cameron has successfully moved it back! You should be thanking Cameron, not moaning; you moan about Labour, but when The Conservatives do really good hard work, to bring the whole Country back into a realm of ‘recognisable ‘British’ politics’, you still moan!

    • Kaine

      I thought the exodus from the Tory party was all down to its support for equal marriage and it being run by London media types? You know, like Gove.

      • Kitty MLB

        Conservatives have been living a Nomadic existence in the cold
        abandonment of exile because of going into coalition with the Lib Dums and allowing them to much say.

        • Wessex Man

          The the Tories should have been brave enough to have gone it alone as a minority government instead!

      • Wessex Man

        Well, there you go again, completely wrong again.

        • Kaine

          About what? I have been told by dozens of your fellow kippers that this was the case. Just go check the equal marriage threads.

    • Kitty MLB

      Utter rubbish. We have been living with the consequences and policies of
      13 years of Labour and happen to be in a coalition with those wretched yoghurt knitting socialist Lib Dems- the tree hugging friendly side of Labour.
      Cameron may not be a Right Wing Conservative as I and has been cavorting
      with the Lib Dems. But I think recently he’s had a Damascus moment.
      And I don’t think a party who as yet never had the responsibility of government
      can throw stones.
      Oh I thought you didn’t like the excellent Michael Gove.
      Theresa May or another woman will be the next Tory leader.. Chaps can have a rest.

      • ButcombeMan

        The author of the term “nasty party” does not have the brains or common sense to be leader.

        • Kitty MLB

          Oh yes we shall be the “nasty party” When we put Nanny State inma retirement home and give
          any unwanted lodgers from the EU and further
          a field their eviction notice.

      • Ooh!MePurse!

        The Conservative Party has always been a broad church. Different wings of the party have dominated at different times. The claim that Cameron is a socialist or a Labour stooge reveals an ignorance of British politics.

        • Wessex Man

          oh dear.

        • Kitty MLB

          Oh its easy and unimaginative. That way some
          can rattle away in the same quotidian fashion
          those utterly hackneyed words
          lib/ lab /Con …Yawn !

          • Wessex Man

            couldn’t agree moere lets get a bit of UKIP IN THERE!

      • Wessex Man

        Theresa May has one good event laying into the Police and you think she’s a Goddess, she’s rubbish, under her watch everything that could go wrong has, the latest of which is the fiasco at the Passport Office or the 216,000 nett immigrants coming in in the last year!

        ButcombeMan below is quite right is she is a major part of the problem with tht Tory Party.

      • allymax bruce

        “those wretched yoghurt knitting socialist Lib Dems- the tree hugging friendly side of Labour.” Great imagery, Kitty; but yes, I agree. Besides, we couldn’t ‘afford’ another Left’ government at this time. The Public doesn’t really have a choice.

        • Kitty MLB

          No we cannot dear Ally. And those who
          deceifully say there will be no difference between main parties are deluded or
          trying to put their wishes before the welfare
          of the country.

          • Wessex Man

            ther’s not a roll up paper between them!

      • Benedict

        ‘But I think recently he’s had a Damascus moment.’

        You mean that he is going to become a practising Christian like St Paul?

  • Hello

    I think what you’re doing here is confusing “impatient’ and “radical”. The DfE and Cummings are impatient, not radical.

  • norman jones

    I have some time for this argument, but I’d really dispute that either Gove or Cummings are actually ‘specialists’ in education. Gove’s only experience is as a rentagob columnnist and in any case he tries to influence government policy across the board; Cummings has no actual training in education policy either; his only professional experience is in PR and political advice, i.e. the spin doctoring he supposedly hates.

    Cummings has managed to convince a lot of people that he actually knows something about education, but in truth most of his ideas are unoriginal (which he’d know if he hadn’t dismissed all academic study of education as worthless) and unworkable, not because they’re ‘too fast’ or ‘too radical’ but because they are terrible ideas (he literally wants to scrap any kind of Ofsted inspection).

    What he’s missed in his summaries of politics is that governments are actually accountable to people, and that most Tories wouldn’t support Cummings’s batshit ideas, let alone the people at large. FFS the free schools legislation, which the majority of voters dislike, had to be rushed through parliament as concerned with ‘terrorism’ because it would’ve failed otherwise.

    as the other commenter on here indicates, Gove and Cummings are the very worst kind of people to be in government, because they think they know better than everyone else.

    All of these briefings are the actions of a man whose interpersonal skills are those of a toddler and who blames his inability to convince anyone other than Gove of his brilliance on other people. There’s a reason Andy Coulson – hardly whiter than white ihmself – nixed his appointment. It’s because the second he doesn’t get exactly what he wants, Dominiic Cummigns throws his toys out of the pram.

    • allymax bruce

      ” I’d really dispute that either Gove or Cummings are actually
      ‘specialists’ in education. Gove’s only experience is as a rentagob
      columnnist” (norman jones).
      Correct! The same as what Tony Bliar did when he came to power. He shouted about how everything needed to be fixed, layed out plans to make everything better, and all he done was make everything worse!
      Like I say; Ignore Gove at your peril, England !

  • MuchAdoAboutNoshing

    Whereas Michael Gove is absolutely a radical , determined, like Robespierre, to advance the common good whether or not people recognise what they need.

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