Somebody asked me this question recently during a discussion of Margaret Thatcher, musing over whether the Cameroons will be remembered as the vanguard of a new breed of Conservatism tomorrow the way the early Thatcherites are today. During that conversation I immediately answered the negative - and had I got round to writing this article in a reasonable time, I would probably have stuck with my original title of "Why Cameron will not be a defining Conservative figure." Yet further consideration led me to think I might have answered rashly. So instead of self-assured polemic, this post is now me trying to make up my mind, which is probably less fun to read. Oh well.
First, let us consider the evidence that supports the idea that Cameron will be remembered as a significant, perhaps defining figure. First and most obviously, there's the coalition. The bold manoeuvre performed by Cameron in pursuing a formal coalition in the aftermath of the 2010 election was one of the things that led many - including me - to believe that he might be the next Thatcher, the man whose vision would guide Conservatism and the country at large for the next quarter-century or more. On top of all the talk of the post-Rose Garden 'realignment' of the Liberal-Conservative axis, you have the sterling work of individual reformers. Michael Gove's schools reform and Ian Duncan Smith's universal benefit system will, if they work, be remembered alongside right-to-buy and privatisation as reforms that transformed the British political and cultural landscape in important ways.
So too, if the government fights and wins, will be the slaying of the last remaining Trades Union dragons from the public sector. The growth of what The Economist's Bagehot describes as "Gordon Brown's social democratic client state" is probably one of the most intractable problems facing future British governments. Drastic reform of public services is necessary and this will entail defeating the entrenched special interests that dominate them. If Cameron can achieve this, then he'll be remembered as a historically significant Prime Minister.
Yet there is every sign that he might not achieve these things. In the great tests of his ministry in recent days - liberal justice reforms and NHS reforms - Cameron's instinct has been to retreat. He's compromised Lansley and fed Ken Clarke to the wolves, both of whom were only advancing policies that had already received Number 10 approval. And for all his calling for workers to cross the picket lines during the British Airways dispute during the dying days of the last government, there is no concrete evidence that Cameron has the stomach to take the more combative unions on. In the pursuit of popularity and fearful of not being re-elected, Cameron might squander the opportunity afforded him by the financial crisis to effect necessary and lasting change.
Even if this does not come to pass and Cameron is remembered as a great Prime Minister it does not - and it is important to make this distinction clear - make him a man of historic significance to the shape of Conservatism. First, it should be remembered that the best reforms being undertaken by his government are the brainchildren of the minister responsible. Whether its Gove on schools, Eric Pickles' localism agenda, Lansley's embattled healthcare reforms or IDS' personal crusade on benefits, these reforms are very much the property of ministers, and can't really be perceived as component parts of some great 'Cameronite' vision. While Lady Thatcher was preceded in her vision too, she took Sir Keith Joseph's message to heart and made it her own in a way that Cameron hasn't really done.
The message that Cameron has tried to make his own is the 'big society', and that has become an ill-defined embarrassment. Seldom has a policy so key to the personal convictions of a Prime Minister been sold so poorly. It was deployed, completely untested, at the last General Election, and it has not been clearly articulated then or since. This lack of definition creates problems on two fronts: those who might favour it find little to get enthusiastic about, while those suspicious of it find ample fuel for their fears, suspecting that the vague language betrays a cover for ruthless cuts.
This vagueness stems from Cameron's core problem, and the heart of the reason that he'll never define the party the way Thatcher did: he is still defined by Thatcher himself. Since its earliest days his leadership has been dominated by the need to 'de-toxify' the Conservative brand. Some of this certainly needed doing, and much of it still needs to be done. But the way Cameron has set about it means that he has become too pre-occupied with image, and the short term. He doesn't play to right-wing strengths because he's afraid of appearing, well, right-wing.
Not only does this lead to things such as defence cuts and legally-enshrined aid commitments, which play well with the Guardian despite being of at best dubious benefit to the nation, but it also means that Cameron lacks the spine to stand firm behind reforms he fears will tarnish his image, such as Lansley's health reforms. It also means he can't properly articulate his vision for the 'big society'. While he is free to stress the upsides - community engagement, personal responsibility, localism etc. - he cannot state in plain language the obvious corollaries: a decline in the size and scope of the state. He sprang the 'big society' so late upon an unsuspecting nation because it isn't something he was confident in proclaiming - certainly not before the crash, when perhaps the truest indication of Cameron's fear of his own party was that he was committing to Labour's own utterly reckless spending commitments.
Despite the fact that polls demonstrate that this message is popular with voters, Cameron can't clearly talk about the consequences of the big society because it would sound dangerously like the 'individual responsibility' rhetoric of the Eighties. He has not yet worked out how to sound like a 'compassionate Conservative' while cutting the state, and even twenty years after she left office Lady Thatcher's long shadow is making him jump.
That weakness is why I don't think he'll ever be a defining leader of Conservatism. A defining leader has to be their own person, confident of their convictions and good at advancing their own ideas. Nobody who identifies as an '-ite' of a previous leader, like a Thatcherite, can ever hope to define a party in their own image, but neither can someone with a cringing, subconscious aversion to that leader and their legacy.