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Monday, January 17, 2011 

Thatcherism, Blairism, Blameronism?

There's something seriously odd about the Conservative half of this government. British politics ever since the breakdown of the post-war, nominally social democratic, one nation consensus has been dominated by two all but interlocking personalities and philosophies: Thatcherism and Blairism, to the extent that both overwhelmed their successors. If the pattern is to continue, then Cameron has to start setting out his own related, but still distinct brand of governance.

While it isn't so strange that Cameron has shown no signs of beginning to do so, what is unique is that he's so clearly wedded to continuing and building on the public service reforms started by Blair and in their view, frustrated by "vested interests", for which read trade unions, never the public sector workers which make up those organisations, and Gordon Brown. Even taking into account the seven year gap between Thatcher and Blair, it would have been electoral and political suicide for him to openly state his allegiance to her methods of doing things. Cameron today did the diametric opposite: he name-checked Blair twice, said he had read his "intriguing" memoir and made clear the lesson he had drawn was that he needed to act both quickly and forcefully in pushing through reform.

To be sure, this isn't the first time it's been apparent just how closely the Cameron set has been following the Blairite book of politics. The child benefit cut was arguably an attempt at playing the party off to the benefit of the leader, although one which was flawed. Michael Gove has also long made clear his, as far as we know, unrequited lust for Blair. Never before though has Cameron been so completely transparent in where his inspiration and influence is coming from, not from past Conservative heroes, but from the most successful "Labour" leader of all time, at least in terms of winning elections. His entire speech today could have conceivably been given by Blair at any point during his first term; while it lacks his trademark verb-less sentences and other ticks, it makes up for it in the sheer belief which to the cynical looks like rank insincerity and to seemingly everyone else as evidence of the passion it requires to change obdurate and unyielding bureaucracies. He even uses the term globalisation to describe the pressures facing the British economy, a neologism which has somewhat fallen out of favour over the last few years.

Cameron's trick to define him and the coalition as different is to compare and contrast the approaches of the last Conservative and Labour governments, without doing so terribly accurately. He stereotypes Thatcher and Major as introducing choice and competition to public services without respecting their ethos, while Blair and Brown overemphasised the state and relied on bureaucracy and targets for their improvements. Naturally this leaves Cameron to insert his pet "big society" into the middle, a concept now so voluminous as to encompass private sector providers of healthcare within it. This is nothing more than cover for the extension of Blairite policies without New Labour's way of measuring their effectiveness - the targets which in healthcare the coalition has already gone some way towards abolishing. New initiatives meanwhile, such as Gove's oxymoronic English baccalaureate, have been imposed with the same level of contempt and lack of warning which characterised the worst Blairite interventions in policy.

The key difference is that Blair's reforms took place as spending was inexorably rising - now Cameron is proposing to do even more just as austerity bites, indeed even claiming that he will be focused on getting more for less in our public services. That old impossibility is already becoming a reality in those NHS trusts which are banning operations they can't afford to perform, something that goes unmentioned underneath the rhetoric of liberation for the workers and competition for the companies who have long wanted to get a slice of the NHS pie. Cameron's evidence of how everyone wants this is just as weak as Blair's ever was: it's not exactly surprising that high-performing schools have signed up for the increased freedoms of the academy system when it was originally designed to turned failing schools around, nor is it overwhelming that so many GPs have already organised themselves into consortia when if they don't the government will do it for them in a couple of years' time.

Also missing, even if Cameron refers to the coalition six times, is any real mention of the Liberal Democrats. Vince Cable referred to some of the proposed reforms in his unofficial interview with the Telegraph "as a kind of Maoist revolution ... they haven't thought them through ... [W]e should be putting a brake on it." Even if there aren't immediate signs of more mass mutinies such as the one over tuition fees in the offing, it's clear the party has far less electoral authority than the Conservatives with which to introduce such dramatic reforms; their manifesto was vague or opposed across the board to such measures. Nothing however quite equals the chutzpah of Cameron, trying to avoid recognising the coalition has broken their promise on top-down reorganisations of the health service, claiming that turning commissioning over to GPs is in fact a reform from the bottom-up. It was enough to wonder whether he had been given verbal diarrhoea due to a doctor somewhere similarly confusing which end to put the suppository in.

There is one thing that Cameron and his cohort of Blair fanciers haven't factored in, just as Blair himself didn't, and that's the public themselves. No amount of persuasion is going to convince some that these reforms are about people's lives, rather than the ideology or theory, and should they go as wrong as Iraq did then the fallout will be even more far reaching. It took seven years before Blair's certainty, messianic tendencies and ever more ridiculous rhetorical flights of fancy began to bring him down. Cameron seems prepared to emulate just those mistakes in record time.

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