Shocking news there might be some proper Tories in No 1021 April 2011
Four years ago, David Cameron went to Nottingham and told us what his Big Society project was all about. Not that he used the dread phrase, of course. In those days, he preferred plain English to explain his ambition to complete the second leg of the Thatcher revolution by bringing about Britain's social revival. "Just as we helped clear up the economic mess that Labour left in 1979, so the next Conservative government will have to clear up the mess that these Labour politicians have made of our society," he told his party in March 2007.
It seemed much easier then, in the years before all this BS. Tony Blair was still - just - in office and no one paid much attention to the economic iceberg dead ahead. Mr Cameron could promise great social engineering projects without anyone noticing, let alone pressing him on how he would afford them. But his insight was an important one: that society was in need of the radical overhaul the Iron Lady had put the economy through a quarter of a century earlier.
Since Nottingham, things have become far more difficult. Mr Cameron is in power, but not a winner, a politician who looks at ease as a prime minister despite having no general election victory to his name. He shares government with the Liberal Democrats, who have successfully extracted concessions on Europe, universities, and the constitution - issues that are of second order to the Prime Minister but play on his party's rawest nerves.
The deficit and the necessary steps taken by George Osborne to eliminate it not only threaten to crush the life out of the economy, but absorb the majority of the Coalition's political capacity. The public finances define all it does. Mr Cameron's patrician confidence in his abilities, and his laissez faire approach to government, which once seemed a refreshing antidote to the controlling excesses of New Labour, now look a bit too casual. For all its public school swagger, the Coalition too easily flinches when the grapeshot flies. Eight months into their term, the wheels are still on but the bolts have worked themselves loose.
Tories who care about communication have worried for some time about the absence of a clear message coming from Downing Street. The recent departure of Andy Coulson due to the phone hacking crisis engulfing Rupert Murdoch's newspapers has offered an opportunity to recalibrate the No 10 operation. Tories of an ideological bent, however, worry that the proposed solution is to recruit a Guardian-favouring BBC executive and a pollster who worked for David Owen's SDP. Craig Oliver's understanding of television and Andrew Cooper's mastery of political salesmanship may be just what Mr Cameron needs to get things back on track, but not everyone in his party will think so. "BBC+SDP=out-of-touch London elite" as one member of the Government payroll texted me.
A few days ago, it was announced that Mr Cameron had ordered the most recent portrait of Lady Thatcher to be moved to a more prominent position in her former study, where he meets visiting dignitaries. Mention of The Lady prompted some Tories to wonder whether there were in fact any Thatcherites in Downing Street at all. Mr Cameron's aides point out that Michael Fallon, a minister under Mrs Thatcher and now the deputy chairman, is an increasingly important figure in the inner circle, and brings a sure touch of ideological certainty to the mix.
But they might also single out the senior adviser who coined the words Big Society, and who since May has been driving the changes that the Prime Minister hopes will help him deliver on his Nottingham promise. Steve Hilton, so often teased for his Californian manners and his hippy look, is arguably the most ideologically Conservative member of the inner circle. Recently, his role has been enhanced by the Prime Minister. He is being put in charge of a beefed-up policy unit, and is more than ever the driver of what Mr Cameron knows might well prove to be a one-term project.
Mr Hilton would be the first to acknowledge that if the public does not understand what the Government is doing, it is the Government's fault, not the public's. But look beyond the presentational problems, and it is possible to argue that our contempt for the Big Society idea is no different from the opprobrium heaped on Mrs Thatcher in the early months of 1980, eight months after she took office and years before the significance of her economic reforms became clear.
"We have to be better at explaining that what we are doing is deeply Conservative. It is about a smaller state. But it is much too early to expect people to understand that this is a social revolution," one aide says. In myriad ways, the Coalition is dismantling the "Big Government" that is Mr Cameron's opposite of the Big Society: crime maps and elected commissioners to give voters a direct say over policing; transparency about council and Whitehall spending to force down budgets; opening education to outside providers to squeeze aside local government; greater private competition in health to drive down costs; reducing the number of MPs; switching chunks of government activity online to make it more accessible and cheaper; promoting a new youth volunteering service to get 16?year-olds into community work. Behind the noise about the Big Society, the shrinking of the state is well and truly underway.
The scale of what is being attempted will be signposted by Mr Cameron on Monday when he sets out the next phase of public service reform, ahead of an overdue White Paper in the next fortnight. On this issue at least, he is not for turning. It will be Big Society 2, we are told. It will bring together what is already being attempted with a batch of proposals that will accelerate - he hopes - the transformation of what the state does and how it does it. "We are opening up public services to outside providers. We are ending the state monopoly. We are no longer handing over a cheque - those days are over," I am assured.
Quite how they can explain it without mentioning the small-state ideology behind it remains a mystery. Internally, they admit there is too much timidity about the Thatcherite case for change. Today, the influential think tank Reform issues a comprehensive review of public service policy, which measures the consequences of this hesitation. It fails the Government on most measures with a scorecard packed with Ds and Es. Worse, it charges Mr Cameron with inconsistency. "Viewed as a whole, the Government's public service reform policies are all over the place. The Government's failure to adhere consistently to its principles gives an air of unreality to the whole programme."
Mr Cameron's difficulty is that chaos is far more noticeable than steady, incremental change. Government slip-ups attract bigger headlines than policy press releases. The arrival of the new Downing Street cat on Tuesday earned as much coverage as the scandal of elderly care in the NHS (although no one pointed out the good news: that if a cat is needed it's because the rats are staying put - the ship isn't sinking). There is a revolution underway. We just aren't prepared to notice it.