Modern Conservatives seem to be allergic to success. Every time things are going right, the party spasms. Sir John Major’s government nurtured a remarkable economic recovery, yet was beaten after its infighting appalled voters. In opposition, David Cameron acquired a habit of blowing opinion poll leads — a habit he did not, alas, shake off in time for the general election. And now, just as a Conservative victory at the next election looks likely, war has broken out again. What should have been a day of success for Michael Gove has ended in his being forced to apologise for briefing against officials in Theresa May’s department. And the Home Secretary, for her part, has lost a valued and highly effective special adviser: Fiona Cunningham.
The feuding between Gove and May is, in part, a problem of success. Gove has proven to be a radical, reforming Education Secretary; he has arguably achieved more than anyone else in government. Ms May can claim to be the most consequential Home Secretary in modern times: she has taken controllable immigration (i.e., from outside Europe) to its lowest level in 16 years and recorded crime to its lowest in 25 years, and all on a budget that’s the lowest it has been in ten years. Her recent confrontation of the Police Federation showed her at the height of her powers.
Both ministers like to fight, and both like to win. But when they fight each other, the Conservative Party loses. Mr Gove’s views on Islamism are well known: he once wrote a book, Celsius 7/7, against the appeasement of fundamentalists. Ms May’s determination is also legendary: she likes to work until 2 a.m. identifying and eliminating problems (and enemies). The deportation of Abu Qatada was her most high-profile success, and at times it seems as if she’d like to send Gove on the next flight to Jordan. He likes to offer his views; she tends to regard any interference with her department as an act of aggression — even on relatively innocent issues such as Chinese visas, which was of concern to the Treasury.
The Education Department and the Home Office have been behaving like autonomous government agencies, and it’s easy to see why. Under Cameron, No. 10 has become a coalition reconciliation service, rather than a centre of government. Cameron’s aides act as regularly for Nick Clegg as for the Prime Minister himself. Cameron does not attempt to dictate government from the centre. This is to his credit. But he has spent (and wasted) so much time keeping Liberal Democrats happy that he has neglected his own party.
The Conservatives intend to fight the next election by parading their competence — which will be difficult enough, especially when it comes to issues like government finances. But more Tory feuding may fatally undermine Cameron’s claim to be the most stable force in British politics. Such episodes are just careless, and fatal to the overall Tory message.
Yet we can expect more because there is no one in No10 – other than Cameron – who was capable of sorting this out because there is no one sufficiently respected by either May or Gove. As it stands, No10 is viewed by both the Education Dept and the Home Office with something approaching cordial contempt – it’s seen as a coalition relationship reconciliation unit. Both Gove and May believed their achievements have come by their ignoring No10’s occasional phone calls – normally asking a favour on behalf of Nick Clegg, or worrying that their reforms would be open to challenge under some EU directive or another). And broadly speaking, they’re right.
Coalition has deformed No10, and made in into a coalition love nest. Those atop No10 work for the coalition, rather than the Tories. So there’s no one to coordinate the Tories – other than the PM himself, who is too busy. This is yet another example of a problem that Lynton Crosby would have solved more quickly, or even nipped in the bud, if he was moved from Tory HQ and put into No10, in effect, as a Chief of Tory Staff.
That two powerful and effective cabinet members could be at war with each other, dripping poisonous quotes to the press on the day of the Queen’s Speech, reveals an worrying lack of discipline. The tendency towards omnishambles has not gone away. And it’s not confined to No10: why did George Osborne allow Treasury aides to tell Scots that the union was worth ‘10 weeks worth of chips and mushy peas’ as if they were addressing tartan untermensch? Did he see that advert? Approve it? Thoughtless, outrageous slips like this can lose a country. Allowing needless war between your two best-performing ministers can mean that voters see the shambles, not the achievement.
Cameron was right to act tonight – but, to be frank, it’s his fault that things grew so out of hand. This Gove vs May feud has exposed a lack of prime ministerial grip – which is why the PM has had to act tonight. The election is on a knife-edge: if he gets everything right between now and next June then he can win. He just can’t afford any more of these unforced errors. It’s time to take Crosby from the cramped, badly-ventilated Tory Party HQ and take him into No10, with a brief of making sure that these slips don’t happen again.
This is an extended version of the leading article in this week’s Spectator