The backdrop of the political stage is more important than the characters on it. Their destiny is determined by the context in which they lead. David Cameron and George Osborne lead in a hung parliament in a deep economic crisis. The surprise is not that they have lacked ambition but that they have been too daring. Some of their critics on the right call on them to be more like Margaret Thatcher, but they do not enjoy the space that she enjoyed, while sometimes behaving as if they did.
I have read many times in recent days that Thatcher's victory in the Falklands War propelled her to victory in the following 1983 election. This is a myth. She would have won easily if there had been no war. Unlike Cameron/Osborne Thatcher was an extremely lucky leader. When the SDP was formed in 1981 her opponents were split in two and suddenly the stage was clear.
At her peak Thatcher had a genius for recognising how far she could go. Even with her opponents in disarray, she was much more cautious and insecure than her public image suggested. For those who want the real picture, I strongly recommend the memoirs of her adviser, Ferdinand Mount. His description of how nervous she was as she prepared to call the 1987 election is both hilarious and an implicit warning against viewing leaders as caricatures. She was nowhere near as resolute as she appeared to be.
Curiously Cameron and Osborne are more resolute than their reputations suggest. They are seen as a couple of tacticians, interested in PR and without much purpose. A Chancellor who cuts the top rate of tax for high earners, targets child benefit while putting up the price of Cornish pasties is bothered about more than PR. A Prime Minister who gives the go-ahead for the biggest upheaval in the NHS since its creation is not looking at the next day's headlines alone. They act almost casually in their policymaking as if they had all the space in the world.
Yet, what recent events confirm is that there is not enough internal scrutiny at the top of the Coalition, a level of fierce questioning to match the daunting backdrop. The key decisions are taken by the so-called Quad: Cameron, Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. These days the talks are more of a negotiation, the brokering of a deal, a very different dynamic to forensic scrutiny. More ruthless after last year's referendum campaign, Clegg plays for Liberal Democrat influence. Cameron and Osborne counter with policies that are more recognisably associated with their party. The quartet seeks to keep the Coalition alive in its policymaking, but that does not necessarily guarantee a bomb-proof fusion of different interests.
Away from the Quad there are no big figures in cabinet ready to scrutinise. This stands in contrast to the Thatcher era when her instincts were challenged by the so called "wets" in the early years (not very effectively), and later by quite a range of figures from Michael Heseltine to Nigel Lawson.
The four members of the Quad have no previous experience of government. In the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the 1930s they make decisions without any sense of what it is like to be a departmental minister and with no direct experience of witnessing previous rulers. That is why the Tory wing spend so much time reading the memoirs of Tony Blair and Jonathan Powell, and return repeatedly to the 1980s for guidance. They have no ministerial memories of their own to help them avoid shallow decision-making.
New Labour suffered from the same lack of experience but if Cameron and Osborne look to that era for source material I urge them to read the full version of Alastair Campbell's diaries, which vividly outline the level of scrutiny to which Blair was exposed, at least in domestic matters. Campbell was a critical, candid friend, but so were less well-known figures in No 10. "If you do that you are screwed" was a common exclamation. Next door Blair famously had a Chancellor questioning every word. In return the Chancellor had almost the same level of scrutiny from No 10. Even if Brown's budgets were more of a solo exercise, there was a nervy assumption during the entire New Labour era that things could go horrendously wrong at any given moment and so there was an endless neurotic bomb-proofing of policy, almost to the point of paralysis.
On an extremely cluttered stage, No 10 has cause to keep more of a critical eye on what its neighbour is up to and vice versa. Strong personalities need to set aside their amicable decency and exclaim: "We risk being screwed" to the inexperienced policy makers. Perhaps even the Cabinet could speak up. If the level of internal scrutiny does not improve in such a fragile context, there will be much bigger obstacles than flying Cornish pasties.Reuse content