Allan Massie: David Cameron needs to be more mouse than man

David Cameron: 'A man or a mouse?'
David Cameron: 'A man or a mouse?'
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IF being a ‘man’ means aping Thatcher, then the Prime Minister should think more like Macmillan the ‘mouse’, writes Allan Massie

Is DAVID Cameron “a man or a mouse”? “Does he want to be a Harold Macmillan presiding over a dignified slide to insignificance. Or is there somewhere within his heart – an organ that remains impenetrable to most Britons – a trace of Thatcher determined to reverse the direction of our ship?”

These somewhat peculiar questions were posed yesterday by the Conservative MP Tim Yeo, who is also, as it happens, chairman of the Commons energy and climate change select committee. They were prompted by a U-turn Mr Yeo has himself performed. Having been firmly opposed to the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, he has now decided that this is essential for Britain’s economic future.

This is because flying to and from China is harder from Britain than from our European partners and competitors. There are twice as many flights from Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt as from Heathrow, and “the Chinese government is pressing for more slots at our flagship airport”.

Mr Yeo also justifies his U-turn by arguing that “greenhouse gas emissions from flying” have now been “brought within the EU cap”. Furthermore, and unusually for a Tory MP, he calls in support from Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, who says it is “madness to think that Britain can muddle on without a top-quality hub airport”.

Over to you, Mr Cameron: man or mouse?

Mr Yeo may be spoiling for a fight, but Transport Secretary Justine Greening has the gloves on in the opposite corner. The MP for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields, where her constituents would suffer from the expansion of Heathrow and an increase in the number of flights, she remains opposed to a third runway. So, of course, are the Tories’ coalition partners, and so indeed were the Tories themselves, according to their election manifesto.

On the question of a third runway I am agnostic, or indeed indifferent. Mr Yeo’s view of the Prime Minister interests me more.

If Mr Cameron doesn’t do as Mr Yeo wishes then he will apparently be a mouse, like Harold Macmillan. If, however, he copies Mr Yeo and performs a U-turn, then he will resemble Margaret Thatcher and “reverse the direction of the ship”.

It’s an interesting comparison, and in some respects David Cameron resembles Macmillan rather than Thatcher. Macmillan was on the Left of his party. Indeed, Clement Attlee once suggested that, but for the war, Macmillan would have crossed the floor of the House and joined Labour. In economic policy he was always a Keynesian expansionist. In present circumstances he might have said, as Ronald Reagan once did, that he reckoned the deficit was big enough to take care of itself, and gone for growth. This isn’t Cameron’s position, but it might be his inclination. Far from being a timid mouse, Macmillan boldly embarked on a wholesale policy of decolonialism, disembarrassing us of our empire with a speed that alarmed and infuriated the Tory Right. He also tried to take Britain into what was then the European Economic Community, only to be thwarted by General de Gaulle. Macmillan was a One-Nation Tory, as Cameron aspires to be, though the present nature and composition of the Tory party has made this difficult, perhaps impossible. Cameron and Macmillan have other things in common, not only Eton and Oxford. Both were reared in upper-middle-class professional families of Scots origins, and both married into the landed aristocracy.

Margaret Thatcher – whom Mr Yeo regards as “man” rather than mouse – came from a lower-middle-class shopkeeping background , Methodist rather than Church of England, and married into the Home Counties bourgeoisie. Far from being a One-Nation Tory, she divided the country into “our people” and the “others”. The Tory party today takes its tone, despite Cameron’s attempt to “detoxify the brand”, from Thatcher rather than Macmillan; and this is why it is no longer a national party but the party of south-east England. Mr Yeo himself used to be regarded as a moderniser; mouse rather than man.

I doubt if the question of a third runway for Heathrow, or airport expansion elsewhere, is as important as Mr Yeo pretends. Certainly it isn’t a defining issue of Cameron’s premiership, or shouldn’t be seen as such. Nevertheless, he has done something useful by putting the question: is Cameron the heir of Macmillan or of Thatcher. Much of the dissatisfaction in the Tory party – and much of the distrust with which so many of his MPs view him – stems from the fear that he is indeed more like Macmillan.

The paradox is that in the long run Margaret Thatcher did great damage to the party she led and loved, because she narrowed its base and made it very unpopular over much of the United Kingdom. John Major, himself the heir of Macmillan rather than Thatcher, temporarily recovered lost ground, winning more votes in 1992 than the Tories ever got before but, harassed by Thatcherites in his Cabinet and on the back benches, suffered a heavy defeat in 1997. The party has never fully recovered.

As long as there is a clamour for what zealots call “real Tory policies”, it never will.

Cameron understands this, which is why he was happy to enter into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and remains determined to lead his party from the Left of its centre. I don’t see this as “mouse behaviour”. Indeed, it seems to me essential if the Tories are ever to be a national party again, as distinct from a sectional, geographically confined one. Indeed, he seems capable of looking reality in the face.

But I doubt he can succeed. The odds are against him because his enemies in the party resemble the old Labour Left, more interested in doctrinal purity than in either power or the business of government. The Tories need to be more like Macmillan than Thatcher. That, however, is not the way they are going. So I guess that Cameron is doomed to be a one-term prime minister.