December 07, 2005

The boy-king of the Conservative Party

Some Tories are jumping up and down with excitement: they are seeing a Conservative victory in the next election, whenever that may be. Others and many on the right, who are not exactly members of the party, are feeling very glum, indeed. Even though David Cameron’s victory in the leadership election was a foregone conclusion with yesterday’s announcement more like an anointment, the thought of the boy-king as our best hope against a fourth Labour term, this time probably under the disastrously old-fashioned redistributionist Gordon Brown, does not fill one with joy.

What do we know about David Cameron? On the one hand, rather too much but on the other hand, nothing at all. We know about his education – Eton and Oxford – his lifestyle in Notting Hill, currently one of the most fashionable parts of London and in Gloucestershire, his wife, who is creative director of the elegant Bond Street stationer Smythson’s, his children – two in number, one of whom is disabled and a third on the way.

We do not know what his political views are. And that, many of us think, is a serious handicap (oooops, that word) for a political leader. The Conservatives in Britain and a number of writers in America have somehow accepted the myth that the problem with the party was not message itself but the way this was presented and interpreted in the media. Therefore, they reason, having a nice likeable young leader, who is full of the most up-to-date jargon about modernization (wot dat?) and compassion and who has lots of friends in the media, is bound to give the Conservatives an even break.

This rests on an entirely false premise. The reason the Conservatives did no better in the last election, despite the basic unpopularity of the government and distrust for the Prime Minister, is because when they spoke about their policies directly with no media misrepresentation, they did not say what people wanted to hear. And the person who was responsible for a rather feeble election manifesto that refused to promise tax cuts, a real shake-up in the public sector, smaller government and, above all, a complete rethinking about the European Union and Britain’s membership of it? Step forward David Cameron, MP for four years, one of Michael Howard’s closest adviser and a man who seems to be constitutionally unable to outline, in however general terms, a policy.

In 30 seats the number of votes by which the Conservatives lost was smaller than the number of votes that went to UKIP, Veritas, English Democrat Party, even the BNP. While it cannot be argued convincingly that the Tories would have won all those 30 seats if they had come up with stronger policies on Europe, education, law and order, taxation and immigration, they would have had between 20 and 25 of them. It was not the delivery that was wrong – it was the message.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives have refused to draw any kind of a lesson from that or from the fact that their vote having plummeted in 1997 and 2001, has not risen in 2005. Their concern seems to be to woo the Liberal-Democrat vote, for which David Cameron is an excellent choice.

He expresses no hard ideas, seems to have few real opinions and these tend to be of the discredited post-war statist, nay, socialist variety. He is also full of emotional touchy-feeliness, which sits oddly with his Etonian tones and carriage.

The trouble is that people who vote Liberal-Democrat are unlikely to vote for a Conservative Party that is wanted and needed by the rest of the country. In fact, they are unlikely to vote Conservative at all. And even if they did, the possible numbers would be far outweighed by the deserting Conservatives.

Until yesterday David Cameron was Education spokesman of the Conservative Party. His views on the subject were aired in a speech at the beginning of the leadership campaign. It seems, according to this rather rich and privileged Etonian, that the people of this country (or those of them who cannot afford the highly expensive private education) do not really want to have choice. They would rather not choose schools for their offspring. Well, not being able to afford Eton, they cannot be relied on to make the right choice, one presumes. No, according to Mr Cameron, what they want is for people like him to sort out the education system.

His pronouncements on the rest of the public sector – a disaster area whichever way one looks – have been less detailed but along similar lines.

Somebody obviously told him half-way through the leadership campaign that maybe, just maybe, the Conservative Party should be for individual freedom and small government, so those words did occasionally crop up in his later speeches but these were overshadowed by the mellifluous sound of “modernization”, “forward looking”, “compassion” and so on. And we are none the wiser as to what any of it means.

Putting everything together: Cameron’s background, for which he feels he has to apologize, if half-jokingly, his lack of experience (his career has been entirely in politics except for a few years as Director of Corporate Affairs in a media group), his emphasis on the personal in politics, his references to the state as the purveyor of the compassion that he is so keen on, one is left with a cold feeling. The Conservative Party is going to be led by somebody Margaret Thatcher would have unhesitatingly described as a “wet”.

What of the fact that Cameron has been described as a eurosceptic, though, one must admit only by a few very ignorant journalists? It all hinges on the rather arcane argument as to whether Conservative Members of the European Parliament should or should not belong to the federalist European People’s Party. Under Iain Duncan Smith they were pulled out, under Michael Howard they were marched back in. Cameron promised to pull them out but as many will not want to go, the outcome remains undetermined.

On the whole, this is not much of an issue outside the Westminster Village (Britain’s equivalent of the Beltway). Most people in the country have no real idea what the European Parliament is and, if they do, they are unlikely to understand its rules, which say that parties must join with other parties to create groups in order to function.

As against that, Cameron is known to have said that he could not envisage Britain ever leaving the European Union. Not ever. Prattling on about EU reform without clearly having the faintest idea as to how that reform could be accomplished (like most MPs, Cameron displays no knowledge of the workings of the EU) is the equivalent of babbling of green brooks.

The one definite policy Howard had taken on (after many difficulties, caused by Cameron and his colleagues on the manifesto team) was the repatriation of fisheries. When asked what he would do about it during the leadership contest, Cameron told the present spokesman that he would ditch it.

In actual fact, he is ditching everything resembling a policy and is setting up a new policy co-ordination to discuss policies, on the assumption that the election will not take place for another four years. He might miscalculate there.

We have seen Cameron’s first appointments – largely predictable so far, though putting the born-again compassionate Conservative Iain Duncan Smith in charge of social policies is a bad sign – and his first performance in Prime Minister’s Question Time. These give little indication of the future. The Conservatives who are rejoicing may be right. Gordon Brown may well lose the next election for Labour. But will it matter to the country that David Cameron wins it? And will the electorate be as enamoured of the boy-king and his delightful family as the Tories are?

Posted by Helen Szamuely at December 7, 2005 05:04 PM
Comments

Well that sure sounds bad.

Perhaps the man is such a nullity that he can be persuaded to adopt some good policies out of sheer political cynicism? That is probably too much to hope for.

Posted by: Lex at December 7, 2005 07:28 PM

Ouch.

Posted by: Jonathan at December 7, 2005 09:15 PM

Another fine mess they have got us into. "Modernisation, social justice?", is that about sending retired vicars to jail for a month whilst the real criminals are free to do as they will. I would hate to remind him that the fall in social mobility was brought about by a "Conservative", R A B Butler with his free education act, which Labour party politicians used to bring about the comprehensive scandal. He thought he was a "moderniser"

Posted by: Derek Buxton at December 8, 2005 04:01 AM

That is a little unfair to the Butler Act. There were a few problems with it and with the implementation. In particular, the Act provided for a tripartite school system: grammar, secondary modern and technical. The last of these were never set up. But social mobility was made possible by the grammar schools. Since their abolition, it has more or less gone.

Posted by: Helen at December 8, 2005 05:09 AM

Maybe Cameron will turn out to be a gorgeous butterfly, but the chrysalis wasn't promising - at Lamont's shoulder during the ERM débacle, wrote an unsuccessful manifesto, and his education policy was timid. Labour are vulnerable on education in so many areas, yet as education spokesman he never came up with bold, strategic announcements. As a projector of Opposition he was a failure. Robin Cook, for instance, would have been making mincemeat of Labour on education, but Cameron never began to start.

Posted by: John Page at December 8, 2005 05:29 AM

Thanks for the insight. I watched Cameron's victory speech on a BBC web clip and thought he looked like a very appealing figure, but his speech didn't offer concrete (American) conservative ideas. The war was way down his list of priorities, too, but I suppose that is a given in British politcs.

Your new reader,
Steve Barton
Dunwoody, Georgia, USA

Posted by: Steve Barton at December 8, 2005 08:25 AM

Unfortunately, the Conservatives who used to boast (rightly) that defence was their issue are all at sea about it. There seems to have been some altercation between Cameron and Davies before the crowning in which it was suggested that the latter take over Defence. He and Cameron (and everyone else around them) viewed this as a demotion.

Posted by: Helen at December 8, 2005 08:44 AM

A quick addition to the above. What is unfortunate is not that they used to boast about defence being their isue but the fact that they now think being the spokesman on it is somehow inferior. In other words, they have lost that particular plot.

Posted by: Helen at December 8, 2005 10:27 AM

Cameron is simply someone who believes in himself - much as Tony Blair does. It is this self-belief, rather than a belief in any political principles, which drives Cameron. Once in office as PM (should he get there) he will probably take decisions based on their likely electoral effects, rather than on any principle or conviction.

The Tories can use that to their advantage if they can prove that there is an electoral advantage to implementing Tory policies, but there remains a significant school of thought which says that the public simply don't want a Tory government and that to win as a Tory requires abandoning the most "extreme" elements of Tory policy.

Those wishing to see specific policies enacted would probably be well-advised to push for them through the informal network of think tanks, support groups and - perhaps - even the blogosphere. If Cameron is the blank sheet of paper he appears, then there is an opportunity to be the one wielding the pen.

Posted by: Rob Knight at December 9, 2005 04:45 AM

I think the writer seems to have one or two hang-ups regarding the merits and/or limitations of an Eton education, or an independent school aducation in general. As a top educational institute regardless of reputation or media stigma, surely Eton (not to mention Oxford) would be an ideal learning ground for a future shadow minister for education. Perhaps there is a general resentment in the press of an establishment which provides the largest perecentage of Oxbridge Graduates and the great academics of our country. Regardless of Cameron's policies, the fact that he is an Etonian seems to be enough for "critics" to write him off. Perhaps all candidates for public recognition should first go before a panel of Margaret Thatcher, and only then step forth into politics. The writers macho and resentful approach to political commentary limits the authenicity of this article as a noteworthy piece of analysis.
P.s. COCK

Posted by: Ben at February 17, 2006 09:38 AM

No, Ben, this writer has no hang-ups about private education, having attended various schools, at least one of which (British private) was academically superior to most others. Eton is a good comprehensive school and there is no evidence that Cameron was among its brightest luminaries. But that is not the point. It does not, as it happens, give you any kind of understanding of the rest of the British educational system. Even that wouldn't matter if we had not had the Boy-King pronouncing both as Shadow Education Minister and, more recently, leader of the Conservative Party that the plebs (around 93 per cent) has no right to choice. There will be no truck with grammar schools and no independence given to schools. Forget about vouchers. "We" shall sort out the problems. And that, I am sorry to say, from someone whose parents were rich enough to exercise choices and who, himself, is rich enough to do so, is despicable. Sorry but there is no other word for it. It is not Cameron's background but his politics most of us object to.

Posted by: Helen at February 17, 2006 06:49 PM

subj to arouse interest

Posted by: foot fungus treatment at October 10, 2006 07:48 PM
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