In a recent speech in his constituency, David Cameron reportedly compared himself to both Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill (adding, somewhat immodestly, that he and Barack Obama were also "quite similar"). On Monday, it was the 20th anniversary of John Major's general election victory in 1992 and the truth is that Cameron's government is starting to look increasingly like that of Major's.
Firstly, Major and now Cameron presided over a failed economic policy. Under the first four years of Major's premiership, growth was anaemic, though it did slowly recover after 1992 when Britain was forced to change track after crashing out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday. Add to that, there were high levels of unemployment with youth unemployment peaking at 924,000 in 1993 ("a price well worth paying", said Major's chancellor Norman Lamont, whose special adviser at the time was one David Cameron).
In 2010, Prime Minister Cameron inherited an economy that was growing and where unemployment was falling. Today the recovery has been choked off, UK growth has flat-lined and the OECD warn of a double-dip recession. Unemployment now is at its highest rate since 1995 (when John Major was PM) and youth unemployment stands at over a million.
There are other comparisons too: Major, and now Cameron too, had a penchant for, to use Thatcher's own phrase, "a privatisation too far" (whereas Major broke up and flogged off the Railways, Cameron seems to be doing the same to the NHS); Major was weak internationally, especially in Europe, and so too is Cameron; and history may argue that both were prime ministers of dysfunctional coalition governments of one sort or another.
Yet perhaps the most striking similarity between Cameron and Major is their complete lack of any vision for the future of the country. John Major's 'forward offer' in 1992 was simply that he wasn't Margaret Thatcher or Neil Kinnock. There was no vision, no big ideas and a feeling in the end that he had been content to oversee a period of national decline.
Under Major the closest thing to a vision we got was 'Back to Basics', which backfired almost immediately (it is also worth noting that Cameron's words on last summer's riots drew unfavorable comparisons with Major's Back to Basics speech). And who could forget Major's 'Citizen's Charter'? This was famously dubbed a "big idea from a mediocre mind" by Peter Hennessy. The Charter established such brilliant reforms as a motorway cone hotline, which in its first year received 11,500 calls and saw six sets of traffic cones moved at a cost of £68 per phone call. It also introduced a law making it illegal not to signpost toilets.
As for David Cameron, the respected conservative-supporting columnist Iain Martin put it well when he wrote recently: "Mr Cameron is highly competitive and pragmatic, pleased to have got the top job but not gripped with a desire to take the country in a particular direction."
For instance, is David Cameron's big idea really 'the Big Society'? This has been launched and re-launched umpteen times. Today it is seen as partly a tactical device used by the Prime Minister to divert attention away from bad headlines elsewhere, and partly as a means of providing political cover for imposing the biggest spending cuts in a generation. The fact is the government is making it much, much harder for community and voluntary organisations to survive, let alone flourish.
And does anyone believe that historians will look back in twenty years and say "hey - remember the Happiness Index?" This, I remind you, is the government's £2million survey of 34,000 people over five months to find out what makes them happy. I very much doubt it.
In the end, Vince Cable probably put it best in describing the deficit of ideas at the heart of Cameron's Government. His leaked letter said:
"There is still something important missing: a compelling vision of where the country is heading beyond sorting out the fiscal mess; and a clear and confident message about how we will earn our living in future...We need a more strategic and proactive approach using all of the government's policy levers - rather than simply responding to crises after they have developed, or waiting to see what the market dictates."
A recent Com Res poll found that 72% of adults said the Government was "out of touch with ordinary people". This has followed a disastrous budget that gave tax cuts to millionaires but clobbered grannies, pasties, caravans and working families. This has been compounded by the ongoing 'cash4cameron' scandal - that once again drew comparisons with the 'Tory sleaze' that marked Major's time in office. Until recently, Cameron's supporters might have said that their man is much better at photo-shoots with fashion mags than John Major ever was. Maybe that's right. But even David Cameron's PR machine seems to be losing its shine of late.
Yet John Major's anniversary this week does remind us that there is one very big difference between these two Conservative prime ministers: namely that Major, unlike Cameron, did manage to win a general election. So maybe the Tories should be wishing a happy anniversary to Sir John after all.
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