On Monday morning, David Cameron delivered the first major speech on prisons from a Prime Minister for over twenty years. This reform agenda should be accredited to Michael Gove, but the PM has seized the life chances agenda as his own. Pursuing a domestic policy focus not only serves as a useful distraction from Europe, but allows Cameron to cement his legacy as PM.
For Conservatives, Maggie’s premiership is the yardstick. But determining Thatcher’s legacy was somewhat easier, because there was a clear enemy – the unions. As public opinion turned against the unions, it was easy to show her mettle by taking them on. The narrative was about saving British industry from a hostile force. The world does not work like that anymore – the Conservatives might be trying through the Trade Union Bill, but it would be extremely difficult to convince the majority of the population that the greatest scourge on British industry is trade unionism. The unions have already largely been broken, but the global crash of 2008 also enlightened people to the fragility of a globalised economy.
So in absence of an enemy, how does Cameron make his legacy? Global peacemaking doesn’t always work out (see: Blair), so he turns Conservatives’ attention to one of the last skeletons in the closet – themselves. Labour has always pushed the message that Conservatives represent inequality, privilege for the few – reinvigorating the Compassionate Conservative agenda goes some way to mitigating this. With Labour distracted over Trident and failing to provide an effective Opposition, this narrative will most likely succeed, allowing the Conservatives to reinvent themselves as a party of both economic stability and a social conscious.
Labour’s last chance rests on the PM’s fundamental misunderstanding of strategy and tactics. Does he really want to break the cycle of reoffending by letting go of the old mantra that ‘prison works’, or does he want to focus time in the first year of parliament on trade union reform? Cameron’s approach has been to attempt to placate both sides of his party, but in doing so, he has failed to define his agenda, and so messaging has been incoherent. The lack of strategy was excusable during the Coalition, because both Conservatives and Lib Dems could use the other as a buffer. There is no hiding now. The fact that Cameron seems now to have woken up to this failing should be concerning, and Labour should not be complacent enough to imagine that a similarly confused approach would happen under George Osborne.
Overall, the PM’s plans have been well received, and will be judiciously executed with Gove at the helm of the MoJ. The Government’s Life Chances Strategy is due in a few short weeks, allowing Cameron further airtime on his agenda, while Labour continues to eat itself. The key component of a successful legacy is picking a battle you can win, and with Labour sinking deeper into introspection, the PM may have struck gold with the life chances agenda.