Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dave Was The Future Once

9/12/05 Sunday Herald

"He was the future once!." Dave's first outing at Prime Minister's Questions was a huge success, and Blair's face was a picture when the newly-elected Tory leader delivered his well-rehearsed sound bite. We all loved it.

But is David Cameron trying too hard? Cycling around town to open-necked photo ops; demanding positive discimrination for women in Tory candidates lists; holding meetings with Friends of the Earth. It's all a little Rory Bremnerish: a Tory toff who takes off his tie and tries to be popular. Like a trendy vicar championing every right-on political cause.

But Cameron does the image thing pretty convincingly, almost as convincingly as Tony Blair. It requires chutzpah, cynicism and a kind of schizophrenic amnesia to reinvent yourself in public. Dave, remember, was the author of the last Tory election campaign which was arguably more rightwing than Thatcher and openly played the race card. He has a fondness for flat taxes too. Yet suddenly, we're suppose to buy Cameron as one of those social-workery types that Mrs Thatcher used to despise for "drooling and drivelling" about social justice.

Right on cue, the 80 year old Baroness was taken into hospital after a health scare. Surely, I thought, this is carrying news management too far! Getting Thatcher to peg it in order to show that Cameron has laid her ghost. I mean the man has no shame.

But the Tory press has already laid her to rest. It has been amusing to watch crusty Thatcherite columnists like Simon Heffer and Bruce Anderson taking off their ties and trying to sound as if they know what is going on in their party. It goes without sayting that the they loathe Cameron's apeing of New Labour - but they've had to come into line because he is the first chance of a Tory election winner - well, since the last one.

Cameron is glib, stylish, telegenic and lacking in any coherent ideology. But that's nothing new. William Hague was a pea out of the same pod. Remember the "fresh future"? Iain Duncan Smith touring Easterhouse? They too were the future once. (Can't think why Tony Blair didn't remind Cameron of that).

As far back as 1998, Michael Portillo, another futurist Tory, urged the party to come to terms with the modern age of gender politics, sexual diversity and the environment. He was destroyed because the Conservative membership couldn't handle his frankness about his gay past and anyway didn't want to be modern.

For me, writing about Cameron induces a feeling of deja vu. I keep thinking that I have written this before - and a quick look at the cuts reveals that I have. Each of the last four Tory leaders tried to push the party to be more inclusive modern and centrist. Each has ended up scuttling to the right in order to shore up the Tory core vote at the general election - the third of the UK which is middle aged, male, white and doesn't like foreigners. This was because, when it comes down to it, no leader can afford to alienate the Conservative 'base'.

Merely looking like and sounding like your opponent doesn't guarantee success and it can just as easily turn off your natural supporter. As for switchers, if Cameron is too like Tony Blair voters might well consider that it is more sensible to stick with the real thing.

So behind the glowing face, is Cameron offering anything different from his failed predecessors? Well, perhaps. He is the first Tory moderniser to have the membership unequivocally behind him. He won the leadership by a massive two to one against David Davies whose Eurosceptic, tax-cutting agenda was much closer to core Tory attitudes.

Cameron prevailed even though he had been exposed as soft on drugs, positive about gays and had talked about feminising the Conservatives. He ran against his own party. It may be that the Conservative movement is now so far gone that it doesn't care any more what kind of leader it has - rather like Labour in 1994. It will support anyone who looks like they have a remote chance of winning.

However, when Tony Blair took over, Labour already had a clear and long-established lead over the Conservatives in the opinion polls. Today Conservatives have been trailing Labour in the national polls, even while the government has been in all manner of difficulties from the TeeBee Gee Bees to the war in Iraq.

Cameron will have to achieve a remarkable and unprecedented turn-around in the opinion polls if he is to stand any chance of winning the next general election. It looks an impossible mountain to climb.

And yet no one dare write off David Cameron. Labour is more openly divided now that at any time since the deputy leadership election in 1981. There is near civil war in the parliamentary party with Labour MPs scuffling in the lobbies during votes on detention without charge.

As this column has noted, Tony Blair depends on the Tories to get much of his legislation through the Commons against the opposition of his own backbenches. The anti-terror legislation, the education reforms, Trident replacement, nuclear power. This could drive a wedge between the Labour leadershop and the party and create a dramatic opening in British politics.

Tony Blair is a lame duck Prime Minister who will not be standing again and holds Labour's fate in his hands. A disorderly succession to Brown could destroy Labour. It's not inconceivable that Blair could become so fed up with his party's resistance to his public service reform agenda, that he decides effecitvely to take the ship - and Gordon Brown - down with him.

But if David Cameron wants to take advantage of this situation, he will have to prove that he not only looks the part, but stands for something. All the guff about social justice and the environment is just that - empty gesture. He will have to own some kind of policy agenda to make himself credible as a Prime Minister. This is going to be difficult.

So far, all we really know is that he wants to opt out of the mainstream Conservative group in the European Parliamnet and sit with people like Robert Kilkroy-Silk. Not very inclusive, that. Nor is the idea of selecting school pupils at eleven. Or the war in Iraq, which he supports.

Cameron has ditched much class-based Tory policy including things like patient passports, which would have subsidised people to get private operations. But he still seems to hanker after tax cuts. He talks about "sharing the increase in wealth equally between tax-payers and public services" - but there isn't going to be a lot of new wealth around in the next few years, now that the economy is struggling. And Gordon Brown has already signalled a very tight public spending regime for later in this parliament. So where do the cuts come?

In the now famous session of Prime Ministers Questions it was striking how much weaker Cameron in his second round of questions to Blair on the environment. He wants to be green but doesn't intend to keep the climate change levy. He sounded as if he didn't quite know what it was.

So, let Dave have his moment of glory - it may not last. Being the "heir to Blair" may not be such a good thing to be. The Tories don't seem to have noticed how unpopular Tony Blair is among the electorate. The polls say moody, workaholic Gordon Brown is much more fashionable in the country. It could be that the Tories have discovered style over substance, just as the voters were getting tired of it

No comments: