Why is David Cameron in such a hurry? When Britain’s new prime minister checked into Downing Street back in May, the public might have expected a respite from political hyperactivity. After all, this was a newcomer to real power who’d sold himself to the voters as an easygoing centrist with a dogma-lite version of conservatism. Besides, after an indecisive election, he was sharing power with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats, unlikely to support violent change. Surely he’d want to stay away from challenging initiatives at least until he’d found his feet in Westminster.
Not so. In his first 100 days, which ended this week, Cameron has confounded the commentators. What the public sees now is a prime minister in policy-setting overdrive. A slew of proposals suggests not a moderate consensus-builder but a leader who’s out to remodel the relationship between the citizen and the state—and soon. Last month the minister in charge of overseeing the transition, Francis Maude, stated plainly that the coalition wanted to push through a program of simultaneous reforms with greater speed and vigor than attempted by either Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair, the two pivotal figures in Britain’s postwar politics. In Maude’s words, the government “had hit the ground running.”
That’s more than just political bravado. Cameron’s team has put forward a spate of proposals covering almost every area of government. Many have yet to be fleshed out, and all will need the approval of Parliament. But the general direction is clear. On the list: an overhaul of the creaky welfare system, changes to public health care that would remove an entire level of bureaucracy, the creation of new “free schools” largely outside local government control, and constitutional reforms that foresee an entirely new voting system. And more reforms are in the pipeline. OK, much of the program was flagged in the party’s election manifesto, but the British public long ago came to see election pledges as vague aspirations rather than as commitments to immediate action.
For real proof of urgency and ideological purpose, try Cameron’s plans to slash the budget. By common consent, Britain must soon start plugging the $240 billion hole in its budget, one of the largest deficits in Europe. But Cameron’s prompt, wholesale attack on public spending indicates a passion for economy that goes beyond the need to impress the international money markets. What’s now apparent is that his airy preelection talk of building a Big Society with a lesser role for the state was sincere. Already, there have been anguished protests as government departments square up to the reality of spending cuts—the Justice Ministry alone could see 15,000 jobs of 80,000 disappear—and the clamor will only get louder when the government publishes its comprehensive review of spending in October.
Of course, Cameron knows that time may be against him. As yet, his easy manner and apparent confidence have helped to prolong a honeymoon with the public: support for the Conservatives has risen since the election. But the national mood will inevitably sour when those spending cuts lead to layoffs and leaner public services. Cameron must recognize that it is better to act while the Labour Party is still in disarray after its worst election defeat in a generation and his own coalition partnership remains solid.
More important, this could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse the state’s growth without alienating the country. After 13 years of Labour rule ended in financial near-ruin, the voters are more easily convinced that big government can’t provide answers to Britain’s problems. Cuts will be painful, but they can at least be presented as a grim response to necessity rather than as part of a long-term reordering of society that will force the citizen to take more responsibility for his own welfare.
Cameron will also have learned, too, from history. Previous prime ministers have proved nervous of public opinion. Thatcher is said to regret her failure to introduce her drastic state-bashing reforms after taking power in 1979, waiting instead until she’d secured a second term. Tony Blair, hobbled by infighting among his own ministers, was no braver in the late 1990s: despite the “new dawn” rhetoric of his campaign, he finished his first term without a single game-changing reform to his name. Cameron knows better. If he wants to change Britain, the time is now.