Less than one year before a general election, not even the Conservatives are quite sure what David Cameron stands for, writes Stephen Glover
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.
Even Brown’s erstwhile allies at the BBC and the Guardian have turned against him during his struggle for survival. The whole world asserts that, from Wales to the South-East of England, Labour’s results were truly shocking. So they were. But very few observers have bothered to mention how disappointingly the Tories fared. It has not suited the mood of the media to point out anything that might give the smallest crumb of comfort to the hapless Brown.
In fact, in the European elections, the Tories won an unimpressive 27.7 per cent of the vote, an increase of only one per cent over their performance in June 2004, 18 months before Cameron rode to the rescue. Believe it or not, the Tories won a significantly larger share of the vote in the dark days of 1999 than they did in the European elections on 4 June.
I know — European elections are different. There are lunatic parties like Ukip, and nasty ones like the BNP, which have taken votes from the Tories, many of which will revert to them at the next general election. I understand, too, how dangerous it is to extrapolate. Yet one might reasonably argue that the success of marginal parties at a time when Labour is so unpopular suggests a certain lack of enthusiasm for the Tories. The results of local elections, in which the Conservatives won 38 per cent of the vote — short of the magic 40 per cent — hardly suggest a surge in their support.
Sages attribute the Tories’ poor showing to a volatile and vengeful electorate that wanted to punish politicians in all the main parties. Conservative strategists hope it will be different on election night. Maybe it will. In fact, I am pretty confident. “David Cameron’s Tories” will probably win the general election as a result of the amazing unravelling of Brown and the New Labour dream. We all expect it. The foreign currency markets are counting on it. The result is practically in the bag.
And yet hardly anywhere in Tory circles — not even in local Conservative associations — do you encounter the belief and the hope and the excitement that hovered over Anthony Charles Lynton Blair before New Labour’s victory in May 1997. As for the wider nation, it can hardly be said that Cameron has yet caught the public imagination.
It’s part of my job to try to follow politics, but I can’t say I have much sense — if any at all — of what sort of government Cameron will lead. Will it cut public expenditure and, if so, by how much? (If it doesn’t, we’re doomed.) How will it improve our lamentable education system? Will it resist the relentless tide towards further European integration? Will it, like its predecessor, allow uncounted numbers of immigrants into this country? The answer to all these and several other important questions is: I really don’t know. Does anyone?
Of Cameron the man I feel I have glimpsed something. Everyone who knows him well says he is a hard nut, with most adding that he is decent enough. Even those who don’t know him can see easily enough that he is exceptionally decisive. Look how he grasped the issue of MPs’ misappropriation of taxpayers’ money while Brown was staggering around like a horse with lockjaw, pretending to be in charge. In truth, Tory MPs were at least as much at fault as their Labour counterparts, but Cameron’s bustling sense of concern persuaded people that he had risen to the occasion in a way Brown could not. This is not just an anecdotal impression. Opinion polls apparently confirm it.
Equally, Cameron’s methodical, step-by-step “decontaminating” (his word) of the Tory party following his election as leader in 2005 evinced the same qualities of determination. Here there are clear parallels with Blair. While the young Labour leader had Brown, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell to help him remodel the Labour party, Cameron has relied mostly on his friend, George Osborne, his spin doctor, Steve Hilton, and Andy Coulson, his media man and a former editor of the News of the World, to refashion his crew.
The Tory Right suggested that the party had lost the elections of 2001 and 2005 because it had not embraced sufficiently right-wing polices. Cameron thought the opposite. He believed that, by implying even tiny cuts in public expenditure or suggesting that the NHS was not absolutely perfect in conception or by mentioning the possible ill-effects of immigration, the Tories had rendered themselves unelectable. It couldn’t be allowed to happen again.
And so we have had what has really been a brilliant, single-minded PR rebranding campaign, from the huskies to the hugging of “hoodies” to all the green stuff to the ditching of grammar schools. Any Tory who sounded vaguely racist or otherwise off-message has been hounded out without even the benefit of a kangaroo court. Much of this has been distasteful to many traditional Conservatives, including columnists such as the Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer and my friend Peter Hitchens, but they have had to lump it. Cameron’s probably correct insight was that the Tories would never win a general election again so long as they could be portrayed by the media, and in particular by an all-powerful BBC, as numbskull Neanderthals on the wrong side of history.
Hence the courting of Polly Toynbee and the Guardian, which acts as the BBC’s brain and, God help us, its moral conscience. The Tory leader was at it again only the other day, sycophantically name-checking Ms Toynbee as he unveiled his thoughts about constitutional reform at — where else? — a Guardian-sponsored conference. It evidently doesn’t matter to Cameron that Polly viscerally hates Tories. (I remember her mocking the blameless Tory magnifico Sir Patrick Mayhew in a column shortly after New Labour’s victory in 1997 because she didn’t like his voice or appearance.) Cameron is utterly unsentimental in such matters — in a word, ruthless.
In reshaping the Tory party, Cameron has been stunningly decisive. He understood that, until or unless the Tories were accepted as members of the human race by the liberal-minded BBC, they would be represented as freaks, deterring the swing voters on whom any party must rely for victory. His analysis was probably correct, though one can’t ignore those Tory right-wingers who say Labour’s collapse is now so unredeemable that the supposed horridness of “the nasty party” is no longer an issue. The fact is that the compact has been successful: the BBC does for the moment give Cameron a fair wind and the Guardian almost likes him.
What looks like a commanding, even courageous, performance can, however, be interpreted in a different way. Conservatism has become the belief that dares not speak its name. The Tory leader may be tactically forthright but he sometimes appears intellectually timid. When the New Labour project was still in apparent working order only a couple of years ago, with the economy racing along, and “boom and bust” allegedly vanquished, it may have made a little sense for Cameron to accept that public expenditure should never be cut. At any rate, one could glimpse some sort of rationale. Now such a policy is indefensible.
A longstanding friend of both Cameron’s and Osborne’s explained to me: “He and George have been watching Tory leaders fail from John Major onwards, and everything they do is informed by that perception of failure.” That means there are a number of subjects that can’t be mentioned lest the old charges of Tory extremism be raised again.
You have to be almost 50 to remember well the last time Labour got this country into trouble. Over such a long period of time it is easy to romanticise. The Tory manifesto of 1979 was in many ways a modest document, and hardly anticipated the economic and social upheavals of the following 11 years. Margaret Thatcher, more hedged in by political enemies in her own party and the Cabinet than is Cameron, was obliged to be cautious. For all that, the Tories in the years before 1979 were not only concerned with the resumption of power. They understood the magnitude of the crisis the country faced, and were not afraid to come up with new ideas to deal with it.
I know we have not yet had the Conservative manifesto, which may be bulging with exciting new policies. I also understand that the Tory leadership is worried that such good ideas as it does advertise may be snatched by the government, as has happened on several occasions. Yet I wonder whether fewer than 12 months before an election any party in modern Britain has been such an enigma to the electorate as the Tories are today.
In some areas, there is an absence of ideas. In others, there are ideas, but the Tories are not very anxious to let us know what they are. Cameron usually does not dare speak about immigration — again, out of fear of the BBC’s response — though a majority of Britons, including many immigrants, are quietly worried about it. Europe is generally off-limits for similar reasons, though Cameron at least has half a policy here — the long-deferred pledge, made to the Tory Right during his leadership campaign, to separate from the centre-Right integrationist parties in the European Parliament — which has caused him some grief with the BBC and the liberal media.
Rhetoric about our “broken society” is hardly contentious, but the policies to put it back together again are either vague or unconvincing. The only area in which there appears to have been much new thinking is education, where Michael Gove, though much more circumspect as a politician than he is as a journalist, has dared to produce some new (in fact, often old) ideas about giving more power to parents. Otherwise, Tory policy is remarkably unambitious. Cameron and the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, are not merely terrified of suggesting that the NHS could ever be reformed. The biggest and most inefficient bureaucracy in Europe must continue to receive increases in real terms in its budget for as long as the Tories are in power.
Tory caution has been most evident in public expenditure. It has taken the most severe economic crisis for 80 years, and the prospect of the largest public deficit this country has ever faced, for Osborne to prise himself away from the mantra about “sharing the proceeds of growth” to acknowledge that there may have to be cuts — or, at any rate, a reduction in the increase of public expenditure. Even so, Lansley was stamped on by the Tory leadership when he recently revealed that, apart from the NHS and the international development budget (why should that be sacrosanct under a Conservative government?), there might have to be cuts of 10 per cent across the board.
Not in front of the children. Everyone knows there will have to be savage cuts in government spending after the election. Labour knows it, the Tories know it and so does the electorate. Yet so shell-shocked are Cameron and Osborne as a result of their long years out of power (poor dears) that they dare not be candid and truthful. (One might mention here that the Shadow Cabinet does not appear to be the most outstanding in human history.) Politicians may not often win elections by promising tax increases and reductions in expenditure, but they can lose them by appearing vague and shifty and opaque. It is very difficult to imagine Margaret Thatcher in similar circumstances refusing to level with the British people.
When Brown repeats again and again in the House of Commons that Cameron is short on policies, I am afraid he has a point. Of course, if the Tory leader were less bashful, more willing to share such secrets as his box of tricks may contain, the Prime Minister would accuse of him of wishing to dismantle the welfare state. One can see that he has to be careful. But he needs to attend to another concern too — that he approaches the general election not so much as the “quiet man” Iain Duncan Smith laid claim to as an unknown quantity. Ask people who don’t know or care much about politics what David Cameron and the Tories stand for, and you will see a blank look creep over their faces.
Outside Labour’s core vote, the electorate is pretty sure that the party is unfit to govern but it does not yet understand how and why the Tories are. Some people say that Cameron will not declare himself because there is a vacuum at the centre of the man, an absence of real belief or conviction about anything that matters. Can this really be true? I would prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt, and say that, for all his tactical courage, there remains at the core of the man a knot of fear.
Back in Witney Peter Hitchens is still holding up his hand. Nearly an hour has passed. Finally, when the last question has been posed by members of the audience, Cameron turns to the columnist. It is rather clever of him to have kept him waiting so long, if also perhaps a little unwisely rude, given that he is one of only two or three unremitting adversaries in the Tory press. He must have known that Hitchens would ask the most piercing question, and that, had he been allowed to do so at the beginning, he might have darkened the mood of the meeting, before doubtless trying to ask another one.
The question is whether it was “right to claim £1,700 a month from the pay packets of nurses and dinner ladies” towards the mortgage on his country house. This is a reference to the Camerons’ pleasant home near Witney, which, as something of an amateur expert on the north Oxfordshire property market, I would estimate to be worth about a million and a half pounds. The aggressive questioning silences the audience. There is a glint of fear in Cameron’s eyes, though his smile never leaves his face. He admits that he is “someone who is relatively well-off” and has enjoyed “a career in business”, but ridicules Hitchens’s suggestion that he and his family may be worth £30 million. If this is so, his wife must have run off with the money. We all smile, and relax. Besides, adds Cameron, he was only claiming for the interest on his mortgage, as he was entitled to do.
In a charming, Tony Blair sort of way, he didn’t actually answer the question. He didn’t say whether he thought it was morally right for a wealthy man to take taxpayers’ money to enable him to buy an even bigger country house than he would have been otherwise able to do. I’d say it wasn’t. Is Hitchens right to compare Cameron to Blair? These are different times and they are different men. The point about Blair is that he had the world at his feet. His majority was impregnable. His economic inheritance from the Tories was sweet. And yet all the ideas and hopes and plans came to so very little. In the end New Labour has thrown it all away.
Cameron appears to have even fewer policies than Blair did in 1997, and he seems likely to become Prime Minister in far more difficult circumstances. I’d say that he is probably tougher than Blair, and probably cleverer. Until or unless he lets us into his detailed thinking, though, it is impossible to predict what kind of Prime Minister David Cameron is going to be.