Tom Richmond: David Cameron decade ends with echoes of Blair

After 10 years as Tory leader, David Cameron's strong alliance with his Chancellor George Osborne contrasts with the dysfunctional battles of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
After 10 years as Tory leader, David Cameron's strong alliance with his Chancellor George Osborne contrasts with the dysfunctional battles of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
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WHO would you prefer to lead the country – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown or David Cameron and George Osborne?

Ten years after the Prime Minister’s election as Tory leader, the comparisons with the Blair government were plain to see before Parliament authorised RAF air strikes against Daesh/Islamic State targets in Syria in echoes of the soul-searching that surrounded the now disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Like Mr Blair in 1997 who came to power with a mandate to rebuild the economy, Mr Cameron’s immediate priority on entering 10 Downing Street in May 2010 was to regain control of the public finances following the banking crisis and global recession.

Like Mr Blair whose emergence coincided with John Major’s government being overwhelmed by sleaze scandals following the launch of the “Back to Basics” initiative, the Tories became beneficiaries of the fallout from the errant expenses claimed by MPs from all parties.

And like Mr Blair who responded to the 9/11 atrocity by dragging Britain into military conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, it is Mr Cameron’s misfortune that he now has to make similar life and death decisions after an upsurge in IS-inspired atrocities led to British holiday-makers being executed as they sunbathed on a Tunisian beach, before the slaughter of the innocents in Paris three weeks ago.

Yet, while there is a depressing familiarity to the news agenda as the Conservatives, like New Labour, struggle to deliver public service reforms, the similarities end here.

Unlike Labour which allowed spending, and the deficit, to spiral out of control, there is recognition from Mr Cameron – and his right-hand man – that Britain needs to spend within its means and this was endorsed by the electorate on May 7.

Unlike Labour which embraced the European Union without thinking through the consequences from acquiescing to the free movement of EU citizens, the Tory approach is far more circumspect and will culminate in a historic referendum in 2017.

And while Labour allowed itself to become totally distracted by the daily infighting between Mr Blair and his Chancellor – reports dismissed at the time as “media froth” were subsequently proved to be unerringly accurate – Mr Cameron continues to enjoy the most cordial of relations with George Osborne.

The importance of this last point should not be under-estimated. Even with the Lib Dems, and awkward cusses like Vince Cable in coalition from 2010-15, Mr Cameron’s first government was far more stable than the Blair-Brown administrations when the level of distrust became such that the Chancellor declined to inform his Prime Minister of Budget plans or Mr Blair committed Labour to a massive increase in NHS investment during a TV interview.

In hindsight, the greater surprise is that the electorate tolerated such a dysfunctional government for so long as Mr Blair – burdened by his disastrous decision to invade Iraq with George W Bush – became too weak to sack his Chancellor for serial disloyalty.

That this did not happen was because Labour enjoyed thumping majorities in the Commons – there were nearly always sufficient sycophants on the backbenches willing to be voting fodder – and the Tories lacked credibility until Mr Cameron’s quiet emergence in late 2004 when he realised quicker than most that the Conservatives not only needed to become less strident and antagonistic, but that the party had to reach out to all sections of society.

Of course, Mr Cameron became the beneficiary of two strokes of luck when Mr Brown finally grabbed the keys to 10 Downing Street in the summer of 2007. The first was the new Prime Minister’s decision to shy away from holding a snap election. Victory for Labour, as the polls forecast, would have stopped the careers of the fresh-faced Tory leader and his even more boyish-looking Shadow Chancellor in their infancy.

The second is that Mr Brown, the politician who prided himself on being the “Iron Chancellor”, found himself presiding over the greatest financial and banking crisis since the Second World War. Having controlled the Treasury’s purse-strings for 10 years, rather than broadening his horizons as, say, Foreign Secretary, his previous decisions returned to haunt him.

In contrast, Mr Cameron became PM with a specific mandate to sort out the public finances and it is likely to be his successor – most probably Mr Osborne – who will be in the fortuitous position of entering office with an economy on the up.

Just as Margaret Thatcher once remarked that her greatest triumph was New Labour, the same can be said of Tony Blair – it took his centrist approach for the Conservatives to realise that the party required a leader like David Cameron if it was to return to pre-eminence. And, in time, Labour, too, will realise that it is totally unelectable unless it returns to the centre ground conceded by, first, Ed Miliband, and now Jeremy Corbyn as the Opposition lurches to the far left.

If the politics of the past two decades has proved anything, it is that elections are won from the centre by the party that can build the biggest consensus and is most trusted when it comes to the public finances. It’s also that the job of Prime Minister, in a 24/7 media age, is too big for one person.

Yet politics remains fickle. Applauded when he took leave of the House of Commons in 2007, Tony Blair’s reputation remains in freefall – he, and Gordon Brown, have become much diminished figures.

As for David Cameron and George Osborne, they still have the chance to shape their legacy but it will come down to their handling of those three recurring themes – Middle East military intervention, the economy and trust. From being raw novices a decade ago, they have proved many of their doubters wrong and emerged as statesmen and the fact that the Tories are not assured of a Parliamentary majority could, in fact, be a strength if it leads to more considered decision-making –such as this week’s tumultuous vote on Syria.

And, if you still doubt that they’re the right men to lead the country, consider the alternatives: do you want to return to the Blair-Brown infighting or, heaven forbid, entrust Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell with the keys to the Exchequer and responsibility for Britain’s national security? I thought not.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk