A 19th-century Irish parliamentarian once lamented that: "Ireland's cup of troubles is running over – and it is not yet full." For Ireland, read Gordon Brown. Just when the poor old PM thinks that things cannot get any worse, they do. Along comes Lord Levy with his memoirs. Michael Levy's comments are dramatic. Yet they are hardly surprising. We should only be surprised by the most improbable headline of all: "Senior Blairite says Gordon not so bad.''
The Tories can hardly believe their luck. But there is one senior Tory who remains unmoved by recent developments: David Cameron. He has a quality which will serve him well when he is PM and the real crises start. He has political sang froid. In August 2005, during the early phase of the Tory leadership contest, some of Mr Cameron's advisers grew nervous. David Davis was relentlessly busy; what was Team Cameron doing? David Cameron made no concession to his restive associates. "This campaign will not start in earnest until September,'' he would say: "So relax.'' He was right.
Last summer, there was a renewed jangling of Tory nerves. Against all expectations, Gordon Brown was gaining momentum, making the political weather, moving ahead in the polls. Yet again, David Cameron was immune to panic. "Gordon should enjoy himself while he can,'' he would say, "For this is as good as it gets.'' Again, he was right. Even so, had Gordon Brown possessed half of David Cameron's neurological fortitude, he would have held an election in early October and history would be very different. This thought has, no doubt, occurred to Mr Brown. It will neither lighten his mood nor improve his temper.
Although David Cameron is calm in adversity, he is not complacent when the wind changes and his adversaries feel the icy blast. He is well aware that so far, Gordon Brown has proved better at alienating the voters than the Tories are at attracting them. Mr Cameron knows that he still has a lot of work to do. He is also determined to learn from Tony Blair's mistakes.
By 1997, no opposition in British history had proved more adept at politics. There was a corollary. No opposition had done less to prepare for government. Perhaps because the politics had been so easy, Mr Blair made the fatal mistake of concluding that government would be a simple matter. Out of bitter experience, he learned better, but too late. In January 2007, David Cameron said that he almost felt sorry for Tony Blair. After nine-and-a-half years, the PM had at last worked out how to do the job. He knew which levers to pull. But it was no good. Just when the car was cruising along in overdrive, Mr Blair had run out of political road.
Mr Cameron is determined that no one will ever be able to say that about him, especially as the difficulties facing him are almost as daunting as the ones on Margaret Thatcher's agenda in 1979. Leaving aside trifling matters such as defence, the economy, law and human rights, Prime Minister Cameron will have four major challenges which have defeated all his recent predecessors. They are the broken society, the public services, Europe and the Union.
Modern Britain is in the grip of a grim paradox. Over the past couple of generations, as the country has become steadily richer, the underclass has become steadily more ungovernable. Social and political changes associated with the collapse of the family and the decline of old-fashioned manual labour have smashed the lower rungs of the social ladder, leaving an underclass wallowing in the mire. In Eric Hobsbawm's phrase about the victims of the early Industrial Revolution, their existence is based on dreams and violence: drugs, street gangs and the appropriation of feral children.
David Cameron is determined to reintegrate the underclass into society. He is equally intent on dealing with another problem, which John Major identified in his Citizen's Charter and which Tony Blair also addressed, unavailingly. How do we ensure that the public services actually serve the public? How can we guarantee that the Government obtains value for money from the tax pounds it spends? How can we give the British people the standards of health and education which they deserve?
Then there is Europe. Like most Tories, Mr Cameron knows what sort of Europe he wants: a common market plus political co-operation. This would not guarantee the end of European interference; a common market would require umpires to ensure that there is fair competition. But it would remove the threat of federalism. At last, after 30 years of equivocation and often downright dishonesty by British Europhiles, it would also put the UK's relationship with the EU on a stable, sustainable basis.
But all this will require a series of monumental rows, especially if the EU constitution has been ratified before the Tories come to power. Like Margaret Thatcher after 1979 in pursuit of her budget rebate, Cameron may have to reduce a succession of EU summits to rubble. Somewhere in Whitehall – unless the Foreign Office has burnt it – there is a battered and blood-stained old handbag, long since decommissioned. David Cameron will have to re-commission it.
The European Union is solvable. If only we could be confident that the same is true of the union of the United Kingdom. With the possible exception of the United States of America, the 1707 settlement has been the most successful constitutional venture in history. It enabled England and Scotland to prosper together, to achieve greatness and to be international benefactors on an extraordinary scale. Yet all this glorious history is now under threat because of the crumbling of pro-Unionist forces in Scotland and the creation of a separate political identity.
David Cameron is a devout Unionist, as are most Tories. This is a tribute to their idealism. The end of the Union would ensure almost permanent Tory rule in England. Yet the Tory Party, greatly to its credit, is standing firm on the Union. Whatever else David Cameron might achieve, he would never forgive himself if the Union floundered on his watch.
So the Tory leader has a mighty agenda: so much so, that there is no alternative. He is doomed to greatness: either great success, or great failure. He is setting out to deliver a succession of radical reforms which would improve the condition of Britain and provide a sound basis for our society in the 21st century. He cannot afford to fail.
Shortly before Nicolas Sarkozy became President of France, he visited London and told David Cameron how much he admired the economic reforms which Margaret Thatcher had pushed through in the 1980s. Mr Cameron was struck by this. Afterwards, he said that he hoped that the day would come, perhaps in the 2030s, when a French presidential candidate would tell a Tory leader how much he admired the public service reforms of the 2010s.
David Cameron knows what is expected of him and in the short run, this is more bad news for Gordon Brown. After all, Mr Cameron has not seriously begun to set out his objectives and take the electorate into his confidence. As he does so, there is every reason to expect that Labour will fall further behind.Reuse content