David Cameron has a choice. He is in an unusually strong position. Re-elected against expectations, and having said that he would not stand for a third term, he has the chance to set his own terms for the next two-and-a-half to five years, depending on when he chooses to step down. So what kind of legacy does he really want to leave?
He said on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street on Friday that he would “govern as a party of one nation”. This meant, he said, “giving the poorest people the chance of training, a job, and hope for the future”. While there will be many readers of The Independent on Sunday who will have been disappointed by the result of the election, that is an aspiration which most people share and to which this newspaper will hold him.
We have been here before. When Mr Cameron first became Prime Minister five years ago, this newspaper, while it disagreed with his fiscal policy, was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on the Big Society and the environment. Well, the Big Society had hardly been heard of since until, in the middle of the election campaign, Mr Cameron came up with an uncosted plan to give employees paid days off for volunteering. We, meanwhile, have been running our annual Happy List for seven years to celebrate those who give their time to help make life better for those around them.
On the environment, we have been disappointed by some of the anti-green rhetoric from the Conservative wing of the Coalition, although its record has not been as bad as we feared – thanks to a fierce rearguard action by the Liberal Democrats, for which they earned no reward at the ballot box last week. This means that the decision on who should be Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is particularly important. Mr Cameron cannot afford to give it to anyone who appears to doubt that human activity is causing climate change, and he personally needs to show more leadership on the subject.
However, Mr Cameron made a good start to his reshuffle by moving Chris Grayling from the Justice Department. Mr Grayling had lost the confidence of the legal profession that he had any idea how to make savings in the department’s budget without unacceptably restricting access to justice. We have carried too many headlines in recent years of terrible cases in which people of limited means have been treated unjustly in the name of cost savings.
It is on those hard questions of public finance that we suspect Mr Cameron’s reputation will be made or broken. His claim to be a compassionate Conservative rests on the way his now all-Conservative government treats the poorest. His most difficult moments in the election campaign came when he was confronted with the reality of food banks in one of the richest countries in the world, and with his plans to cut a further £12bn a year from the welfare budget. It was unfortunate timing, to say the least, that the Department for Work and Pensions should have chosen to publish its assessment of plans to cap spending on a scheme to help disabled people into work just hours after the election. Mr Cameron, of all people, should understand that.
For the rest that comes under the heading of “one nation”, namely the crises of Scotland’s place in the UK and the UK’s place in Europe, we believe that Mr Cameron will deal with them as competently as he has so far. There are no easy answers to either relationship. This newspaper supports the Union, and its membership of the EU, but also recognises the democratic case for a referendum on the latter.
Yet it is in tackling the problem of inequality that the real test of Mr Cameron’s “one nation” lies. In his first term, he fell victim to two problems. One was that he appeared, too often, to be on the side of the rich and comfortable. The other was that he sometimes seemed to think that politics was a game that he and his friends thought they were good at. He would say that those are problems of false perception. Well, now is his chance to prove it.
He said that being the party of “one nation” meant “giving everyone in our country a chance, so that, no matter where you’re from, you have the opportunity to make the most of your life”. He said that it meant “that for children who don’t get the best start in life there must be the nursery education and good schooling that can transform their life chances”. We agree with that. Mr Cameron, now is your chance to prove that you mean what you say.
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