We have to accept a disagreeable truth: the electorate have spoken and they have chosen David Cameron to be their next Prime Minister.
Knowing Cameron as we do, and retaining our faith in the good sense of the people, it may be hard to accept this fact: it’s easier to attribute the Tory victory to trickery of one kind or another. But it wasn’t all trickery. The truth is that Cameron very successfully presented the image of a “safe pair of hands” and that is what most people, in normal times, would prefer to vote for.
Things are different when there is an obvious national emergency. In 1916, when young Britons in their hundreds and thousands were being mown down every day by German machine guns on the Western Front, when we were almost out of food because the Royal Navy had failed to protect our shipping from German submarines, the British Establishment at last brought itself to rally round the one man who could win the War – David Lloyd George. When the War was won, he fell from power. He remained in politics for another twenty-five years, through the Depression, the General Strike and the rise of Hitler. But he was never allowed back into Downing Street.
The Lloyd George Coalition met its end at a meeting of Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club in 1922. The MPs were divided. Most of the leading members of the party were in coalition with Lloyd George. But the back benchers were restless. A single speech by a relatively unknown member captured the mood of the meeting:
The Prime Minister was described this morning in The Times, in the words of a distinguished aristocrat, as a live wire. He was described to me, and to others, in more stately language, by the Lord Chancellor, as a dynamic force, and I accept those words. He is a dynamic force, and it is from that very fact that our troubles, in my opinion, arise. A dynamic force is a very terrible thing; it may crush you but it is not necessarily right.
The Conservative Parliamentary Party voted to withdraw from the coalition and to fight the coming election as a unified party. The War was over; and during the next fifteen years, British politics was to be dominated by that same speaker – Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin was a consummate political operator, who pioneered the use of radio to talk to the people. He retained public confidence because he was clever but he did not project an image of cleverness: he projected an image of calm, pipe-smoking reassurance. He kept Lloyd George out of power from the rest of his political life and he left Neville Chamberlain to face Hitler in 1939.
In an interesting Guardian article in February 2014, Martin Kettle suggested that some leading Conservatives had realised that the Baldwin image would be right for Cameron too:
The political mood in Britain today has a lot of similarities to the mood of the 1930s, a leading Conservative told me this week as he explained Tory thinking about the year to come. Just like in the 1930s, the country is still in shock from a major economic trauma, he said. Just like then, the Tory party needs to offer the thing that voters want more than anything else from a politician: reassurance after hard times. It therefore falls to David Cameron, this leading Tory explained, to be the 21st century’s man you can trust in a crisis. That’s why, he went on, Cameron will fight the 2015 general election as the new Stanley Baldwin.
Did Cameron deliberately cultivate the Baldwin image or did it come instinctively? He has the right manner. In the TV debates, he came over as a Prime Minister. He projected an image of calm reassurance. In the five-way debate which he did not attend, he was probably the winner. He was the Prime Minister; it was not for him to descend to the mud-slinging level of the other parties. He had better things to do and he didn’t attend.
UKIP also, like Lloyd George, is a dynamic force. Because it is a dynamic force, it may attract but it may also repel. In Britain, a dynamic force is not allowed anywhere near power in normal times. In a crisis, things are different. In a crisis, a Cromwell, a Lloyd George, a Churchill will be allowed to take over. But when the crisis is over and the dynamic force is no longer felt to be needed, everyone breathes a sigh of relief and returns to everyday business.
The return of David Cameron to power has made some people breathe a sigh of relief. That relief is not justified. But as yet, there is no perception of a crisis situation in Britain. The crisis will come. Things will get worse before they get better. When the crisis comes, the country will need UKIP.
Photo by Matt From London