Fiscal hawks within the party, meanwhile, are calling for tax cuts for workers and businesses and the scrapping of regulation — much of it emanating from Europe — which they claim is stifling job creation and growth. They point out that Moody’s downgraded the UK not because it was cutting too fast, but because it wasn’t cutting fast enough. They want bigger reductions in welfare spending, and warn that even the education and healthcare budgets, which so far have remained sacrosanct, will have to be cut if the debt is to be brought under control.
In his defense, Cameron says he cannot implement all the policies he would like because of the constraints of being in coalition with the socially progressive and economically centrist Lib Dems, and that he will pursue a more overtly conservative agenda if he secures an overall majority in 2015. The danger, however — and the conundrum for Cameron — is that if he doesn’t starting pursuing those policies now, there will be no overall majority.
It’s not all doom and gloom. For one thing, there’s that fall in unemployment, which has been little short of remarkable given the economic climate. Around a million private sector jobs have been created since the coalition took office, more than offsetting redundancies in the bloated public sector, and at 7.8% the rate is well below the European average. While politicians and pundits like to obsess over quarterly GDP figures, voters tend to worry more about whether they have a job to go to.
Cameron can also take comfort from the fact that, for all his problems, the Labour party isn’t doing much better. It was Labour that got Britain into its current state, and which now offers only more borrowing and spending as the solution. While in opinion polls Labour holds the kind of lead that’s typical for an opposition party midway through a parliament in a sluggish economy, Cameron remains more popular than its leader Ed Miliband, and the Tories remain more trusted than Labour to fix the economy.
There’s a consensus among conservative commentators that while progress is slow, the government is on the right track. But there’s also frustration stemming from a sense that Cameron could be taking bolder measures without alienating voters. After all, most of the nominally right-wing policies they’d like him to pursue — from lowering taxes and cutting welfare budgets to renegotiating the relationship with the EU — are far from being “extreme,” as they are supported by majorities of the British people.
It would be a disaster for Britain if Labour clawed its way back into office (if it did, it would likely be in its own coalition with the Lib Dems, for whom Labour are more natural allies) and the country was as a result plunged back into a deep and lasting recession, all because Cameron was too timid to pursue policies that if explained and implemented properly would enjoy widespread support. Those urging Cameron on would like to see him call the bluff of the Lib Dems over some of those policies, daring them to withdraw their support, and perhaps to force an early election.
Many Tory MPs and grassroots activists have long suspected that Cameron’s instincts are not truly conservative; that his true sympathies lie with the metropolitan liberal-left elites, from whom he differs only on a few points of economic policy. It’s a theme that UKIP’s straight-talking leader Nigel Farage has tapped into, accusing Cameron of talking about “gay marriage and wind farms” instead of addressing the real concerns of voters.
If Cameron is to have the chance to finish the difficult and vital job he’s taken on, he will soon have to start proving those critics wrong.