In the wake of another special-election drubbing in Britain, questions are again being asked about the future of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. While he has no shortage of critics on the left, more significant is the growing dissent within his own party. If the knives are not quite out for Cameron yet, some of his MPs are certainly hovering close to the cutlery.
The latest special election (they’re called by-elections in the UK) was won by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives’ partners in the coalition government. The Lib Dem victory was not unexpected; the problem for Cameron is that his party was beaten into third place by UKIP, the anti-European Union, tough-on-immigration party that has been attracting growing numbers of former Tory voters.
Meanwhile, Britain’s economy stubbornly refuses to grow, and although unemployment has been falling, so have been living standards as stagnant wages are outstripped by inflation. The pound is close to recent historic lows against both the dollar and the euro, with both inflation and the fall in sterling exacerbated by the Bank of England’s ongoing policy of using quantitative easing — printing money — to try to jumpstart the economy.
Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have failed to bring borrowing under control, and last month the UK lost its AAA credit rating with Moody’s. The downgrade isn’t the end of the world — Britain’s borrowing costs remain low, and after the U.S. was downgraded by Standard & Poor’s in 2011, its borrowing costs fell — but the downgrade is a political setback, if not a serious economic one.
Increasingly, Cameron is under pressure from many in his party to adopt more traditionally Tory policies on the economy, public spending, and immigration ahead of the 2015 general election. Not only, goes the argument, are these policies necessary in their own right; they’ll also neutralize the UKIP threat, and prevent a repeat of the 2010 election when UKIP is widely thought to have denied the Tories an outright majority by splitting the small-c conservative vote in marginal seats.
Responding to the latest setback, Cameron has insisted he will not “lurch” to the right, although in the run-up to last week’s contest he was showing signs of doing just that with talk of curtailing immigrants’ access to benefits and healthcare — precisely the sorts of issues on which he’s been outflanked by UKIP. His detractors, however, suspect it was only talk, designed to steal UKIP’s thunder.
Cameron’s ministers have also been floating policies designed to win back lost voters, notably the withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has made a habit of preventing Britain from deporting suspected terrorists on the grounds that they might be tortured, and from deporting foreign criminals because it would breach their “right to a family life.”
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.