Cameron needs to shock his party. Afghanistan will do it

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 04/06/06):

Next week David Cameron completes six months as Tory leader. He has already given us the launch, the schmooze, the image shift and the nutty bit on ice. He has taken to the new politics with aplomb. Above all, he and his team have shown that they can learn. They have read Tony Blair as attentively as Blair read Margaret Thatcher. The leadership bloodline holds strong. What now?

The most irrelevant criticism of the Cameron campaign is that it lacks “substance” and is fixated with personality. That is what it should be. Throwbacks to the old politics have been the curse of Conservative strategists for a decade. They amount to a complaint that Cameron wants to be prime minister.

If there is a Machiavellian moral that Blair taught his party in the mid-1990s it was that policies are mere vapours without power. Lose sight of this, as Labour did in the 1980s and the Tories for 15 years after that, and you may as well go to sleep in a club.

The challenge for Cameron is now becoming serious. It was summed up by a woman in a BBC Newsnight focus group last month: “Oh yes, I’d vote for him — except he’s from the Conservatives,” she shuddered. The message is clear: like the man, hate the party. To that there is only the answer given by Blair on becoming leader in 1994. Boost the man and bury the party.

The strategy was set out by Philip Gould, the prime minister’s pollster, in his celebrated memorandum The Unfinished Revolution, now accorded biblical status by Cameron’s aides. The leader had to seem a lofty figure endowed with values, convictions and beliefs untainted by mere policies.

The party had to be demoted, rendered subsidiary and wholly dependent on the leader and his popularity for its return to power. Blair rose above Labour, whose very name had to be cleansed with the prefix new. The party became nothing more than a vote-catching machine.

For a Labour leader at the time this was a high-wire act. It involved tearing up the party’s constitution, stripping the unions of their power and breaking with the party conference. These were battles from which Blair emerged stronger than any predecessors in his job. But his wider “project” required that these internal victories be projected across the entire electorate.

He had to marry a vacuous “values agenda” of convictions, beliefs and trust to combat the political aversion therapy that was his party’s image. He had to indicate that Labour was no longer the party of the 1970s. It was utterly new.

This needed a dramatic policy gesture that would deliver what Gould called “electric shock treatment”. There should never be another old Labour government again. One salient policy area, the trade union nexus and its hold over economic policy, was chosen and subjected to an auto-da-fe. Blair set out to eradicate all mental association of Labour with trade unionism, however painful the U-turn.

The smashing of the perceived view that Labour was in hock to the unions was Blair’s most lasting contribution to politics. In doing so he espoused the Thatcherite programme on employment and privatisation. He accepted Tory tax cuts and, in a gesture of pure showmanship, forced his party to drop its iconic commitment to nationalisation in clause 4 of its constitution. This last act was deliberately provocative, designed to infuriate the traditionalists and send a message to Liberal Democrats and soft Tories that Blair was emphatically “new”. The old guard might have been stunned, but they had nowhere else to go.

If Cameron is to imitate the Blair project he must do so meticulously, and not just cherry-pick the bits he likes. Hard though it is to recall, Blair in 1994 was a hot-headed radical. Cameron has gone only so far with this strategy. He has projected his image over the head of his party.

He has concentrated on being known and likable, on becoming a celebrity, an anti-politician, as required by the new politics. He has penetrated the media membrane that holds Westminster aloof from the electorate, by travelling, speaking and giving mildly silly interviews. For new Labour he parrots “compassionate Conservatism”.

There have been mistakes. This year’s antics over the education bill, when Blair might have been destroyed, seemed from afar like a Westminster game in which Cameron was scared of a fight. Worse has been the fiasco of the candidates A-list, rubbing sore his Achilles heel as a metropolitan toff with fancy friends.

It is one thing to be photographed with women and black people, another to insult the judgment of constituency associations, long battered and depleted by central interference. Cameron’s localism is strictly of the David Miliband sort, a rhetorical dusting on his speeches. He remains a command and control Tory. This summer he intends to ask his party to “vote” on a candyfloss of aims and platitudes called Built to Last. It is less Blair than Kim Il-sung.

Were the Tories streaking ahead in the polls, “a better Blair” might be appealing enough, but the local elections showed how much ground still has to be covered. The north, the cities, Scotland and Wales remain deeply hostile to the Conservatives. In these areas Liberal Democrats, even led by Sir Menzies Campbell, remain the party of opposition. Cameron is clearly still seen as still a Tory leader and a vote for him viewed as a vote for the old Conservatives.

The party’s need for electric shock treatment is as crucial as it was for Blair in 1994. The shocks so far chosen have been distinctly low voltage. George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has promised not to promise to cut taxes. Cameron was messily equivocal on education and photogenic on melting glaciers. He has made plain his enthusiasm for public services. This is all Notting Hill stuff.

The one area in which the Tories have long held views to which the political centre has been averse is foreign policy. For most electors Europe and the war in Iraq have “low salience”, but they are defining issues. Cameron positioned himself carefully on Europe, but this has been neutralised by Blair’s neo-scepticism.

It is no longer available as a shock. Iraq found the Tories floundering. Michael Howard contrived a questioning “if I knew then what I know now . . . ” His foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Ancram, recently broke ranks and demanded withdrawal, on the grounds that the occupation was doing more harm than good.

Cameron has been pro-war and many of his aides, including Osborne, William Hague and Michael Gove, are supporters of the American neoconservatives. Hague, now shadow foreign secretary, even called last month for a military attack on Iran to stay “on the table”, a position now to the right of George Bush.

Cameron himself seems hamstrung. If performing a U-turn on Iraq is too opportunistic he should at least challenge the government’s recent dispatch of British forces to Afghanistan. The deployment of an extra 3,000 troops to Helmand province, five years after the Taliban were supposedly routed, defies all military sense.

These soldiers are trapped in a desert furnace so hostile from a resurgent Taliban that the only safe movement is by air. They have been sent to eradicate the staple opium crop and “pacify” an area four times the size of Wales with fewer men than it takes to police Cardiff.

At a recent defence briefing, a group of former service chiefs were shocked at the imprecision of the Afghan operation and the lack of any coherent military objective. Each Nato unit has different rules of engagement and a different political remit. One of those present termed it “mission impossible”. Only the most “empire loyalist” of Tories could regard it as making sense, and like Blair’s trade unionists they have nowhere else to go.

Cameron seems stumped by this. A strong and responsible opposition would call the prime minister to account for Afghanistan. The operation is a costly error and one that should be ended as soon as it is feasible under their Nato obligations.

Such a stance would shock the Tory old guard but would surprise and delight those centrist voters whom Cameron must rally to his flag, the majority who oppose Blair’s military adventurism. Shocking and rallying is not of course a reason for adopting a particular policy. But virtue is no less virtuous for walking hand in hand with expediency.