May 12, 2020

If a week is a long time in politics, what can happen in a decade? Ten years ago today, David Cameron and Nick Clegg gave the Coalition government its foundational moment, basking in the sunshine of the Downing Street garden, and their own cleverness.

Spool forward to the present day and the contrast in politics can look almost head-spinning. Since polls closed in the EU referendum in June 2016, Britain has had three prime ministers and two general elections, in a span of time that might otherwise have seen Prime Minister Cameron in office until the May 2020 election.

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Cameron, like Clegg, is a blurred memory. Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, who might interest future historians almost as much, are fading from view. Theresa May, who will not trouble posterity, is already gone.

There’s a lot to learn by looking back to that moment in the Rose Garden. The garden isn’t called that that, of course, but does that matter? It is, after all, how people have chosen to remember it. Perhaps that’s what really matters in the end.

But I wonder if we’re learning the right lessons by looking back on the Rose Garden and the coalition.  I don’t often disagree with UnHerd’s own Peter Franklin, but I have to quibble with his assessment of the Coalition years  as “unusually — almost freakishly — disconnected from what happened next. It’s almost as if they didn’t happen at all.”

Of the main players, Peter offers this enviably sharp verdict:

“Though they were the big beasts of their era, Cameron and Clegg can be seen as an evolutionary dead-end — the last of a line wiped out by a series of cataclysmic events.”

I understand the argument, the narrative it supports, even if I don’t entirely agree with it. More of that in a moment. First, that narrative, which goes something like this: the Rose Garden moment marked a high tide for technocrat centrist elite politicians and their bloodless “new politics”.

Cameron and Clegg, public school and Oxbridge-educated fortysomethings with no real careers outside politics, were able to work together happily because they had more in common than they admitted to voters, and had few ideological convictions to impede their partnership. Together, they oversaw five years of stable government driven its very DNA towards the political centre: a bit socially liberal (gay marriage) and a bit economically conservative (austerity).

The same narrative says that all those things have now been swept away by a tide of partisan vitriol, culture-wars dividing lines and politicians intent on consolidating their electoral base, not winning over opponents. Boris Johnson, you might think, is the embodied repudiation of the Coalition years. Unlike Cameron and Clegg, this narrative suggests, the current PM has no willingness to compromise with opponents or critics. Far from technocratic centrism, he’s a gut-feel guy who won his majority last year on the tub-thumping populist simplicity of “Get Brexit Done” and leads a government whose illiberalism is captured in a home secretary who used to be quite keen on hanging; the new politics has given way to the old.

Or has it? Looking back, I can’t help but feel that the drama and turmoil that has swept away many familiar characters, terminally changing their career trajectories, hasn’t really changed the fundamentals of politics quite so much.

Vitriol? Well, there’s no disputing that the tone of politics has changed, but only in degree, not nature. The idea that Politics 2010 was a Socratic debate among patricians is for the birds; the happy smiles of the Rose Garden followed the Brown years, when it was commonplace for enemies of Labour’s then leader to debate his mental health, and MPs’ expenses, which made it acceptable to address MPs as thieving toerags. Political twitter may have been a friendly clique in 2010, but wider political discourse was often toxic.

A change of personnel? We’re governed by different people, but not a different type of person.  You can only think that David Cameron (Eton and Brasenose, Oxford) and Boris Johnson (Eton and Balliol, Oxford) are fundamentally different sorts if you go in for Freud’s narcissism of small differences. Perhaps you think Brexit is a tectonic gulf between the two, but it’s easy to imagine (as he himself did) the world where Boris was for Remain, and equally possible to imagine the world where Cameron supported leaving. After all, DC was willing to be pushed by his party into a referendum he didn’t want; a bit more pushing might well have seen him saunter across another red line.

On the other side of the House, Sir Keir Starmer is a bit different from Ed Miliband, but they’re not members of different species; after the genuine divergence of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leadership is reverting to the (north London professional) mean. More broadly, the House of Commons has changed a bit since 2010, but not dramatically: there are more women, more BAME MPs and fewer privately-educated MPs. But the place is still heavy with the sort of people whose CVs look a lot like that of Cameron and Clegg.

Twitter might have changed, but politics itself is still done by much the same sort of people who were in charge a decade ago, and often done in a similar way to the same people. Many of those ‘Red Wall’ seats Johnson claimed in 2019 were also Tory targets in 2010. I spent the 2010 campaign tracking Cameron around the country; most of my days were spent in the north-west watching the man try to win over Labour voters who watched football and rugby league. On election night in 2010, a Tory friend said she knew they’d missed the majority because Gedling had stayed red. Cameron may have felt comfortable with Nick Clegg, but it’s not what he wanted. He had to form a coalition with the Lib Dems because he was unable to form a coalition of voters within the Conservative Party big enough to reach from Guildford to Gedling.

What about policy? Surely here we find support for the idea of an essential rupture between the Coalition what came after? Again, I’m not so sure. Cameron and Clegg may have looked good in the garden, but they weren’t entirely the compromising centrists that jolly press conference promised and some people now recall. In part this is because history is written by the former incumbents, several of whom are keen to play up the idea of the Coalition as driven by compassion and moderation.

In Cameron’s own book about his premiership, he describes his political approach as “compassionate” more than 30 times and calls himself “a genuine, moderate and liberally-minded One Nation Conservative.”

That would be the compassionate, moderate Coalition that reduced taxes for people earning £150,000 at the same time as making cuts in welfare payments including tax credits and housing benefit. The compassionate, moderate Coalition whose welfare policies led to claims that they would result in in the Kosovo-style ethnic cleansing of the poor. Those claims were made by one Boris Johnson, of course.

What about liberal internationalism?  Cameron in his book says: “My idea was to mark us out as the most open, globalised, free-trading anti-protectionist nation on Earth”. Which sounds nice, but was hardly the reality of Coalition policy.  

As for liberal internationalism, that might have been an accurate description of Nick Clegg’s personal outlook, but it was hardly the reality of coalition policy. David Cameron and his Home Secretary (remember her?) spent five years tweaking immigration rules, promising yet more crackdowns and generally blaming foreigners for stuff that wasn’t their fault.

Even George Osborne now concedes that he and his friend Dave “didn’t make enough of the value of immigration”.

Cameron banged on about immigration even though his own inclinations on the issue were fairly liberal; he just thought he had to talk tough on the subject to keep party and public happy. Draw your own comparisons with the current PM.

A pro-European coalition? Pull the other one. One of the reasons Cameron lost his referendum was that he asked people to vote for the EU membership he’d spent the previous six years slagging off as an undemocratic fetter on the UK economy. Far from “not happening all”, the Coalition years and Cameron’s European policy were the linear precursor of Brexit. That’s not just my verdict either: Osborne has said the referendum was lost because Cameron and Co were too negative about Europe.

Boris Johnson is routinely described, in Brussels and elsewhere, as a Little England Tory brute with no regard for European history or solidarity. But that’s hardly unprecedented. Rewind to Friday, 11 December 2011, and savour the opening paragraphs of the Guardian’s lead story that morning:

David Cameron plunged Britain’s position in Europe into the greatest uncertainty in a generation as he used his veto to block a new EU-wide treaty and left at least 23 other countries to forge a pact to salvage the single currency.

With the apparent blessing of the pro-European deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg — and the subsequent delight of Tory backbenchers — Cameron deployed the ultimate weapon in European summitry at about 2.30am yesterday.

What about economics? It’s early days and the Coronavirus has obviously scrambled the compass, but there are credible signs that the Johnson administration will end up being even closer to the centre-ground of economic policy than the Coalition. Johnson won his election by junking corporate tax cuts put in train by George Osborne and promising to spend more on the NHS. “Levelling up”, meanwhile, is strongly reminiscent of the agenda pursued by the Coalition’s Vince Cable when he was Business Secretary, and often blocked by the Coalition’s higher-ups. Cameron eventually came around to a more interventionist approach to markets, adopting the Ed Miliband energy price cap he once derided. These days some Tory free marketeers (quietly) grumble that Boris’ big-state economics are not a million miles away from the “reheated Milibandism” that Theresa May tried to serve up.

Then there’s climate change. Husky-hugging Cameron and his yellow-green partner talked a good game on environmental policy, but who was it who ended up promising to “get rid of the green crap” on energy bills and effectively banning onshore wind?

By contrast, consider the environmental stance of Boris Johnson. So far, he’s upheld a legal commitment to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050 even though most voters don’t even know what net zero means (Government polling shows only 35% recognise the term) and certainly don’t know the disruptions that hitting that target will bring to their lives. (Just google “hydrogen boiler”.) Oh, and he’s restarted onshore wind, too. So who is the populist driven by public opinion, and who is the know-all technocrat driving through policies that lack obvious public approval?

I am not denying that things have changed since 2010 — that would be foolish. But the differences between the days of the Coalition and now are easy to overplay, while their similarities are easy to overlook. We should be wary of the idea of historic rupture between then and now, not least because the changes that lie ahead for post-Covid Britain may yet make the differences between the worlds of Dave and Boris look like minor details. Sometimes, the present is more like the past than the future.