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Is it business as usual at No. 10?

15 May 2015

Or could the Prime Minister have a fresh moral vision, asks Paul Vallely

DAVID CAMERON has hit the ground running, doubling the number of his Cabinet ministers who were educated in comprehensive schools, and beginning his first Cabinet meeting by telling ministers that they were to embody a new blue-collar conservatism that prioritised the needs and aspirations of working people.

It was a striking contrast to the roundly defeated Labour Party, whose surviving leaders seemed to be bogged down in a quagmire of post-mortem blame and recrimination. The talk - as ever after a Labour defeat - was of its need to redefine and revitalise. The irony was that it was the Conservative leader, liberated from the restraining influence of his erstwhile Liberal Democrat coalition partners, who seemed most intent on putting a new vision into action.

Some of that new vision is not new at all. Swingeing cuts in benefits are to be prioritised. Restrictions on strikes will be tightened. Faster-than-expected moves on the referendum to pull Britain out of the EU and to repeal the Human Rights Act were signalled.

An opening salvo in a war on the BBC was fired, with mystifying threats to curb or cut the licence fee from its price of £12.13 a month (an unbelievable bargain set against my cable-TV bill, which is ten times higher). He can now bring in the boundary reform that will reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 - and make it easier for the Conservatives to win again. All this sounds like the old partisan politics.

Some of the new agenda is, however, genuinely new, despite keeping so many old faces in the jobs they had held under the Coalition. There are more women in Parliament and Government than before, one third of Mr Cameron's senior ministerial team now being female. He will double the amount of free childcare available to working women. And there was an interesting reinforcement of the Tory strategy to rebuild its base in the north of England, with more talk about the Northern Powerhouse and high-speed rail.

What was most intriguing were two rhetorical flourishes from the untrammelled Tory leader. His pledge of "one-nation" Conservatism, hours after his victory, was taken by some as a return to a softer approach on cuts and public spending. His personnel and policy announcements gave the lie to that. But the old phrase seems to have been new code for a recognition that he now needs to reverse his election strategy of exploiting division between the Scots and English. His change on this is welcome. Little England will leave us all worse off - culturally, socially, and economically.

There was also, I like to think, a hint of the "fresh moral vision of the kind of country we want to be" which was called for by the C of E Bishops in their pre-election Pastoral Letter (News, 20 February). The Prime Minister spoke of the dignity that a job brings, of the responsibility of those who can make a contribution to society to do so, and of the responsibility of the rest of us to help those who cannot do so, at every stage of their lives. During the election, sceptics might have suspected that this was just electioneering. Now that it is over, we must hope that he really means it.


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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