by David Talbot
The Cameron project is now in major crisis. When a smooth talking, young Conservative leader burst on to the British political since in late 2005 he talked a new language for the new Conservatives. The project had a clear-cut logic and sensibility.
After three election defeats the Conservatives could no longer content itself in its own obsessions, talking to nobody but itself and lecturing us on tax, immigration, law and order and Europe when most sane members of the British public had long since given up listening.
The approach drew unapologetically from New Labour. Cameron, for his many faults, was one of the few Conservatives who clearly understood that the Tory brand had become the central problem and that it had to be detoxified. Then, and only then, could the whole edifice be modernised, renewed and the long, slow reconnection with the voters begun. This is what led to Cameron’s most memorable moments in opposition.
The original appeal of Cameron’s leadership was that he would break with his party’s past. He was emphatically not a traditional conservative. So a party that was neither socially liberal, green nor redistributionist was forced to lump Cameron “hugging a hoody”, having photographs with huskies and engaging in wild talk about “sharing the proceeds of growth”.
It was all part of his bitter struggle to rid the “nasty party” image that he, and the public, so disliked. The trouble is, unlike New Labour, the game failed miserably for Cameron at the last general election. His party only managed to defeat Gordon Brown’s policy-less, self-obsessed, exhausted and divided administration by a mere 48 seats.
Ironically it was this failure to outright win the general election that provided Cameron with the biggest boon to his project. The coalition initially played into the long-term strategic positioning of the Cameroon project with the detoxification approach, whilst also drawing the sting out from wider Conservative anger at his failure to win with the, politically powerful, rallying call of governing “in the national interest”.
It also played rather neatly into the Conservative habit of dominating the British centre ground and posing the Labour party as a party of sectional, narrow interests. When Red Ed turned up Cameron probably couldn’t believe his luck.
But today project Cameron is stuttering to an innocuous halt. The problem for Cameron is that he never convinced a large part of his party of the need for change. Many of them think their problem is that he has not been conservative enough, much like New Labour’s critics who, with misty-eyes, lament that the party never offered the masses unfettered socialism.
Cameron has paid the price for attempting to renew his party. The Conservative’s modernising high tide has passed. The greatest cheer of late was when Cameron rather emptily vetoed the EU treaty. He has allowed himself to be drawn into a startlingly stupid NHS reorganisation and made a school boy error in cutting the top rate of tax.
Whatever the economic and political arguments, both have sent a powerful political message that the Tories are back and looking after their own. In wider economics, Cameron’s approach appears to be to strip back the public sector and pray for a private sector response. How very 1980s.
Ironically for Labour, a party never knowingly at ease with itself, a consensus is slowly emerging. We are seeing tentative signs of the emergence of “Milibanites” – those of the Blairite Right who are, just about, seeing shoots of promise in the younger brother’s programme.
But it is David Cameron’s project that is in danger of turning hopelessly incoherent, to the extent one would imagine even he is confused. On the fundamental strategic issue back in late 2005, Cameron was right. His party needed to come to terms with modern Britain. The process of changing his party has since lapsed into reverse. He now has the most serious problem in politics: not enough people in his own party believe in his project. If he can’t convince his party, come 2015 he won’t convince the people.
David Talbot is a political consultant