John Rentoul: The gent's definitely for turning

The coalition will succeed precisely because of the Prime Minister's prowess with the deft about-face

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It takes a true Blairite to spot the joins in our reproduction Prime Minister. Many of us soft Blairites were impressed by how boldly David Cameron annexed the centre ground of British politics by doing his post-election deal with Nick Clegg. How we chuckled admiringly as he dropped the inheritance tax cut and other right-wing nasties, saying they were the price of coalition. How we nodded approvingly as he burnt the kerosene, flying to all parts of the kingdom and beyond. Last week he did a London news conference in the morning, was in Belfast at lunchtime and in Paris in time for the 10 o'clock news. Not as good as the real thing, obviously, we said, but he's got the general idea.

Oh no he hasn't, came the reply from a proper Blairite, Ben Wegg-Prosser. He was one of the loyalists who was in No 10 when The End, aka Gordon Brown, came. On a new website called Labour Uncut last week, he made a sharp observation about Cameron: "He has not reformed his party; he was unable to push through the changes which he wanted in opposition, so he has rather skillfully turned his own failure to secure a majority to his distinct advantage, marginalising the policies and people whom he wanted to junk but could not prior to the election."

This is, therefore, a patch-and-mend government. Cameron is using Blair's techniques to remedy his own failure. But Wegg-Prosser is generous to the Prime Minister in suggesting that he was unable to change the Conservative Party before the election. There is another interpretation, offered by Hopi Sen, a blogger who also worked for Labour under Blair. He asked why Cameron had only now seized the chance to go to the centre to win power. "If Cameron had done this when he was 20 points ahead in the polls, he would have won handily. He had the power that comes from success and little serious faction opposition. If this is what he wanted all along, why didn't he do it? The only answer that makes sense to me is that Cameron is an opportunist."

Oh dear. You mean he is that good? As Andrew Adonis writes on the next page, there are parallels with Benjamin Disraeli, the great Tory chancer who outflanked the Liberals on extending the franchise. I would argue that Cameron the Opportunist is likely to be a more successful prime minister than Cameron the heir to Blair. Criticising a politician for opportunism is, however, an easy mistake to make. During the election campaign I thought Cameron showed weakness in that, every time Brown asked the Conservatives a difficult question, he changed the answer. During one of the televised debates, Brown asked about free eye and teeth checks for old people and Cameron reversed his policy on the spot, promising to keep them. Earlier, Cameron had realised that voters did not like his honesty on cutting the deficit, so he changed that too, promising to cancel next year's National Insurance rise and find the money from La-La Land, although he called it "efficiency savings". (Mind you, last week the Office for National Statistics magicked £7.5bn by revising its estimate of the deficit downwards, thus rendering the entire election campaign irrelevant.)

No wonder, that the Westminster bubble should be so excited by Cameron's coup against his own backbenchers last week, in which he forced his MPs to vote by 168 to 118 to abolish the 1922 Committee. That suggested that he might be an ideological Blairite after all; either that or simply an opportunist who got it wrong. Now, I know a little about the 1922 Committee, because its first chairman was Sir Gervais Rentoul, a distant cousin of mine. I know, for example, that it was actually formed in 1923, by Conservative MPs of the 1922 intake (of whom Sir Gervais was one), and that, contrary to popular myth it did not bring down the last Liberal-Conservative coalition. That was done by the Carlton Club revolt, a putsch by the previous cohort of Tory backbenchers the previous year. Cameron therefore launched his coup against a myth and managed to come off worse. That is the trouble with myths: they can be more powerful than real things. And the myth of the '22, as the body of Conservative MPs who are not ministers, will survive.

All Cameron succeeded in doing last week was to change the voting system to favour Richard Ottaway rather than Graham Brady as chairman. But will that prevent Brady being interviewed by the BBC as the authentic voice of Tory backwoods opinion? It will not, and I could not find a single member of the Cameron entourage who could explain why it had been a brilliant political tactic to further annoy Tory MPs deprived of Government jobs, as many of them think, by the coalition deal.

However, the reason the '22 coup is important is precisely because it was a mistake. Cameron makes as many of them as the next politician, but he gets over them. That is his strength. He is an opportunist who learns from his mistakes. That is why the coalition will probably last. Tory backbenchers may be irritated, but they do not want to bring it down. Charles Kennedy may have discreetly signalled his availability to be recalled to the colours in his article in The Observer last weekend, in which he said he had abstained in the vote to approve the coalition, but Lib Dems have no appetite for a return to irrelevance. Equally, the bookmakers, who have Vince Cable the favourite to be first out of the coalition, have made too much of his hang-dog expression when seen with his Tory colleagues: that is simply what he looks like.

No, the coalition will succeed and the Tories and Lib Dems will fight the next election separately in five years' time. Under the Alternative Vote system, they will each urge their supporters to give their second preference votes to the other party. Labour has further to go than it thinks to climb back against such opportunism.

John Rentoul blogs at www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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