Prior to the 2010 election, David Cameron worked hard to “detoxify” the Tory Party in public eyes, breaking from the Thatcherite image: there were occasional gestures towards a more enlightened approach on social issues – the notorious homophobic Section 28 was replaced by the promise to legalise gay marriage; there were promises to tackle sleaze in the aftermath of the MPs’ expenses scandal; and Cameron and Lansley even toured the country denouncing hospital closures and NHS cuts, promising a moratorium on all closures and real terms annual increases in health spending.
The effort worked enough to get the Tories ahead of Labour in the election, and of course the deal with the Lib Dems then put Cameron in office, at which point the Mr Nice Guy image has been discarded by one minister after another.
A government stuffed with toffs and including a record number of millionaires has cut taxes for those on top incomes and for business, but been especially savage in its onslaught on the poorest and weakest – intensifying brutal assessments of people claiming disability benefits, capping housing benefits, imposing the vicious bedroom tax and trying to cut back on legal aid, to make justice unaffordable to the poor.
The Tories have led a disgusting race to the xenophobic bottom in immigration and asylum seekers, dragging a spineless Labour leadership in their wake as they slam the door on thousands with valid reasons to come to Britain, while welcoming in hordes of tax-dodging billionaires, bankers, wealthy parasites and mafiosi who have driven London’s elite property prices into a crazy upward spiral.
They have worked tirelessly to fragment the education system with “free schools”, and create space for private firms and religious extremists to steer academies. They have massively increased tuition fees for students and commercialised universities. A massive, complex 400-page Health & Social Care Bill has been forced through that breaks up the NHS and opens its budget up for the private sector – while freezing health spending and demanding unprecedented cost savings.
In all of these attacks Cameron’s government has gone further, faster, and with less public support than Thatcher, whose 1979-1990 government had previously set the bar, breaking from the much more consensual patrician Tory leaderships of the post war period.
It’s clear that unlike Thatcher, who won a solid electoral mandate from prosperous layers of “middle England”, and who was determined to go “on and on” until she reached too far with the disastrous Poll Tax, Cameron’s team know they are likely to have only one term in office. They achieved power only with LibDem support, and the LibDems are paying the political price, and face big losses at the next election
They have opted for a straightforward “seek and destroy” mission – aiming to create a new, neoliberal fait accompli that timid Labour – even if they did decide to unpick some changes – would take more than one parliamentary term to do so.
The NHS “reform” can already seen to mesh with competition laws in the UK, EU and World Trade Organisation, making it a complex and costly job to reverse privatisation, renationalise and reintegrate services.
So Cameron’s is the nastiest Tory leadership ever because they have now come out with their clear neoliberal agenda, but know they may have only five years to line the pockets of their friends, and reorganise society to work even more consistently in the interests of the wealthiest – and because they feel they can get away with it. The MPs’ expenses scandal accelerated the trend of disillusion increasing public disengagement from politics – leaving the wealthy activists more scope to do what they like, and making it harder to mobilise opposition.
Cameron can also count on a feeble and directionless Labour leadership, which time and again has conceded support for reactionary Tory policies – creating frustration, dismay and a sense of helplessness among working people wanting a clear opposition and a genuine fight.
He and his cabinet of class conscious toffs are determined, and know exactly what they want. They can only be answered by the development of an equally determined, class conscious and coherent broad party of the left. That’s the challenge we face.