Cameron and Blair: how alike are their policies and circumstances?
The Corn Exchange in Witney was built in Victorian times. There are about 200 banked seats looking down at a small stage. Over the years, people have come here to laugh, but on this particular day these decent, stolid faces seem bewildered. The audience is awaiting the arrival of the Rt Hon David Cameron, the local MP, who is going to explain why many Members of Parliament, including lots of Tories, have been pocketing taxpayers' money.
The great man arrives on time, flustered over by girls with names like Caroline and Fiona, looking sleek, and perhaps a bit too metropolitan for these parts, in a dark blue suit, dark blue tie and white shirt. He embarks on what appears to be a frank account of his own expenses, admitting to a small degree of contrition over his £600 invoice (now repaid) for the removal of wisteria from his country house, though he explains that the unruly plant had been threatening a chimney stack. The Tory leader seems comfortable with having claimed some £20,000 a year for four years to pay the mortgage on this property. Then he cheerfully lays into fellow MPs, who "have to atone for the past".
It is a fluent, superficially persuasive performance. It makes one quite like him. He sounds straightforward. He slaloms through questions with ease and some grace, cracking the odd joke and smiling a good deal, but looking withal as though he cares. Doesn't he remind me a little of someone?
Sitting next to me is the columnist Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday, the only other national newspaper journalist in the Corn Exchange. He has been holding his right hand in the air for some time now, trying to attract Cameron's attention. The Tory leader, although standing only four feet away, defiantly ignores him. After a while Hitchens leans over and whispers something into my ear: "He's just like Tony Blair. I saw through him immediately."
This was the name I was almost thinking of. But surely it cannot be true. It's what so many people say. It's too obvious. One Blair every 100 years is more than enough. And why would Cameron want to be like him?
There is one sense in which Hitchens's comparison with Blair is wrong. At a similar stage in the political cycle, Blair was much more popular than Cameron is today. In the last year or two of opposition, his lead in the polls was far larger and he had done a good deal better in local elections and by-elections. And the disintegrating Tory government he faced was, by comparison with Gordon Brown's shower, a smartly run ship with a supremely able captain.
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