Letter from London 1st January 2006
The arrival of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party has injected a well needed bit of excitement into the dull and predictable world of modern British politics. Whatever your political views the status quo was beginning to get a bit boring. The Labour hegemony was secure with even their loss of seats in the 2005 General Election attributable solely to a switch from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. In a few cases this switch let in the Conservative candidate and the party did make some modest gains in the election. But in reality these were undeserved and it was Charles Kennedy’s LibDems that the Tories had to thank for their modest progress.
Since the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 the Conservatives have had a succession of inept leaders none of whom has captured the public imagination other than as a satirical figure of fun. The party has lost members, votes, seats and any vestige of credibility as a government in waiting. Whatever Tony Blair did (and he did some pretty odd things) Labour seemed secure in office. That has now changed, and whilst the Conservatives still have a mountain to climb, at least they have a leader, who has broken the mould of the succession of faceless, and hopeless, men who preceded him.
Much of Cameron’s current rhetoric is insubstantial and clearly designed to set a tone rather than an agenda. This is shrewd of him - he is well aware that there will not be a General Election in Britain until the year 2009 (at the earliest) and that there will be plenty of time in the years ahead for manifesto building. For now he needs name recognition (the media is helping him willingly to get this) and to establish himself as substantial in the public imagination. It is precisely the route followed by Tony Blair between July 1994 (when he became Labour Party leader) and May 1997 (when he won his first General Election). Cameron and his fellow members of the “Notting Hill” set of Tories are closet admirers of Blair and it is no surprise that they are adopting Blair’s successful methods.
As with Blair and the Labour Party, Cameron does not need to pander to his Party’s core grass roots supporters. In the same way that Blair would never get the vote of Tunbridge Wells man so Cameron will never make progress in the Labour heartlands. So what he needs to do is to win the backing of those who are not natural Conservatives, who have supported Labour and the Lib Dems in recent elections but who are open-minded to the possibility of a Conservative government. By pitching himself as “caring and concerned” he might persuade these floating voters to give him a chance, something his predecessors were quite unable to do. Michael Howard fought a shoddy campaign in last year’s election pandering distastefully to the prejudices of his core supporters (who no doubt loved him for it) whilst putting everybody else off! Cameron’s rush away from the lunatic fringe of Torydom to the very centre of British politics is the opposite of his predecessor’s approach and is wise and pragmatic - but whether it will succeed or not it is, of course, much too early to say.