Honeymoon’s over David, get nasty with the party

By Michael Portillo (THE TIMES, 09/04/06):

Subliminal advertising flashes a word on to a screen so briefly that you do not know you have seen it, but it enters your mind nonetheless. When David Cameron rose yesterday to make his first speech as leader to a Conservative party gathering, he did not rely on such subtleties. He stood in front of the word “Change” written in block letters that dwarfed him.

In almost his first sentence, he remarked that every day in his morning meetings he has “David Davis on my right and William Hague on my left”. Apparently, the irony was lost on Cameron. He sits flanked by the man who contested last year’s leadership election as the “no change” candidate, and by the former leader who fought the 2001 election on narrow nationalist slogans such as “Save the pound” and “Come with me and I will give you back your country”.

If the contradiction is unclear to Cameron, it is apparent to the public. As the Tories journeyed to their mini-conference in Manchester, opinion polls showed that while electors recognise that the new leader is a fresh face, they are unconvinced that change has occurred any deeper in the party.

At the moment of his triumphant election as leader Cameron made a choice. He passed up the opportunity to signal a complete break with the past, which he could have done by giving the top jobs to a new generation of Tory politicians. He blinked at the prospect of making explicit the division that exists in his party between the modernisers and those who have resisted change despite three crushing general election defeats. Now he is paying the price.

It is not just that Cameron has been magnanimous to Davis and Hague, who might conceivably have a political future. He has pulled in Iain Duncan Smith, Kenneth Clarke and John Gummer, giving each of them a role in policy-making. Lord Heseltine has returned to the Today programme thanks to being appointed by Cameron to study inner cities, and the former big beast was given a starring role on the platform in Manchester.

Voters find it hard to believe that the party is undergoing a revolution when they see it represented by the faces that lost those three elections. They hear “change” but the subliminal images tell them something different.

This matters particularly because Cameron lacks other opportunities to demonstrate that the party has moved forward. Tony Blair offered proof that Labour had become something new when the party repealed Clause 4 of its constitution, which had committed it to nationalisation. The Tories have no equivalent policy shibboleth that can be jettisoned.

Their new leader has set about changing the way in which parliamentary candidates are selected, in the hope that the party will in future be represented at the polls by personalities who properly reflect their community and their country. But even if the new process is a perfect success, those candidates will not be in evidence until the next election and will not reach the upper echelons of the party for some time after that.

Cameron faces a quietly sceptical response from many in his party. Noisy opposition would suit him better. If he could be seen to battle the forces of reaction and win, that at least would provide proof of progress. But the party’s right seems to have cottoned on to that. After making a helpful assault on Cameron during his first weeks as leader, Lord Tebbit and others of like mind have gone quiet. They are not going to help Cameron to create an illusion of painful and irreversible change, nor are they going to attract blame for undermining the duly elected leader.

In his speech in Manchester, Cameron skilfully delivered counter-intuitive messages. He knows that every day he must say what people do not expect a Tory to say on subjects that they would not expect him to choose. He has to demolish the pigeonhole in which his party has been imprisoned for many years. Yesterday he spoke about helping those who care for disabled relatives, and people struggling to get on to the housing ladder. He declared that the party should not dictate social norms but rather help people to make their own choices on whether to use childcare in order to go out to work. He called for a green revolution.

What he did not say was as important. He avoided tax, immigration and Europe.

His careful choice of subjects makes still more surprising two mistakes that he has made. Early on, he promised that marriage would be recognised within the tax system. The pledge unhelpfully suggests a harking back to the old Tory party. It can offend single parents, people who live together without marrying, gay people and single people, for whom life is particularly expensive.

The other error is to persist with disengaging the Conservatives from the European People’s party (EPP) in the European parliament. It is true that this transnational grouping with which the Conservatives are allied has views on European integration that the Tories do not share. But a dog that has been allowed to sleep during the leaderships of Margaret Thatcher, Hague, Duncan Smith and Michael Howard could surely be left to slumber some more.

The Conservatives are now trying to cobble together a new grouping with fringe right-wing parties. It makes the Tories look ideological and marginal. It will cast a shadow over Cameron’s efforts to strike up friendships with European leaders, which otherwise would be simple for a man of his urbanity and charm. It has blunted Cameron’s attack on the UK Independence party, which he called “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists mostly”. It was a curious statement from one who had promised to forswear name-calling, but at least it distanced the Tories from their past. I hope the Tories are carefully checking that the continental parties with whom they now intend to link are fruitcake, loony and closet racist-free.

Another danger for Cameron is that he will be driven from his path. I do not expect for a moment that he will follow his three predecessors in a dash to the right. They made the fatal error of confusing a political party with a popular newspaper. Observing the success of the right-wing tabloids that attract millions of readers, past leaders reasoned that if they could sound like their banner headlines and reactionary leading articles, triumph at the polls must follow. But a paper is entertainment and people enjoy reading there a reflection of their unspeakable prejudices. They expect something better from a party that aspires to govern.

Cameron knows that. He will avoid that Scylla but risks being lured towards the Charybdis of premature policy-making. Now that he has raised the hopes of carers, first-time buyers, working parents and environmentalists, the media will be on to him to know what exactly he proposes. Then they will ask how it is all compatible with his promise to grow public spending at a slower rate than national income.

Not all those questions are hostile. There are many right-of-centre journalists who long for Cameron to roll out radical policies. They want him to accept that the National Health Service is a busted flush and prescribe a new mixed economy in health care. Why, they wonder, does he not get on with announcing a Tory policy on education vouchers?

If a political party is not the same as a tabloid newspaper, it is also quite different from a think tank. Brilliant intellectuals are constantly dreaming up solutions to our problems and (who knows?) they might even work. But their ideas are theories that would scare the public rigid and confirm every horrid suspicion that they still harbour about the Tory party. Indeed, when in “private” conversations with sympathetic journalists Conservatives are taunted with having no policies, they succumb to the torment and soon start confessing to a vast secret agenda of radical change.

Cameron must stamp on such indiscipline, just as he should have obliged his party to announce who had lent it money much faster than it did. He should have ratted on whatever promises he had given during the leadership contest to pull out of the EPP and create a married couple’s allowance. He should have dropped yesterday’s men from the shadow cabinet.

Still, he has done much more right than wrong. I blame him only for not yet being forceful enough.