Cameron’s problem: Definitely in office, but only partly in power…

I suspect that Leo McKinstry’s view that Cameron project has failed is based on view that’s widespread view that his prime failure was in laying out a clear enough alternative to Labour. I think this view seriously under-estimates Labour’s residual popularity.

In truth, ordinary English voters did not hold Gordon Brown in the same deep contempt as a dozen or so Tory columnists. Nevertheless, McKinstry is clear about the source of the problem:

Forced to form a coalition, the Tories’ unimpressive record has only exacerbated the national mood of disillusion. Nothing has been done to reduce mass immigration or reform the despised human rights Act. State bureaucracy remains far too large. The economy remains in the doldrums and public debts are still growing. We are now governed by a so-called Conservative-led Government that slashes the armed forces while increasing overseas aid, that cuts support for middle-income families while pushing for gay marriage.

It is telling that the only two recent occasions on which Cameron saw a surge in popularity were first, when he vetoed the proposed new eU Treaty last December and second, when the Cabinet drove welfare reform through Parliament, cutting entitlements for long- term claimants and promoting the work ethic. Most of the British public wants more hard-headed realism like that. The self-indulgence of the modernisers has been a disaster for the party – and the country.

In the case of the first, it was little more than a symbolic ‘happening’ rather than any projection of real power. In the case of the second, it’s indicative of the kind of Conservative policy he wants anyway. What, I suspect, upsets McKinstry is that Cameron is not motivated by politics in the way the traditionalists are (in both main parties).

And the cut in the 50p tax rate gave a political signal to traditional Labour activists to get out the class card and wallow in the very class politics Cameron has thus far managed to deprive them of since taking up leadership of the Conservatives.

What’s missing is any sense of agency flowing from the democratic decision to vote any particular party into office. Noel Whelan made a useful comparison between David Cameron and Enda Kenny at the weekend, suggesting they both need to stop delegating and start managing real change before it is too late.

In that, they may face a common enemy: ie the permanent government, and the army of legal experts who warn darkly of doing anything even vaguely threatens anything beyond the conventionally allowable risk factors. Both need something tangible for all this time in government.

Such drift leads to unforced errors, like virtually bringing the UK’s petrol retail industry to a stand-still with one unintentional remark. Ed Milliband (and Ken) may not always be there to save them from ignominious defeat.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty