Cameron’s new clothes

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Strangely, after a depressing week, David Cameron‘s big intervention on the Lib Dems’ little local difficulty has been somewhat uplifting.

Why? Because it suggests that the Cameron strategy is not quite as well thought as it first appeared.

Within a fortnight of being elected leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair didn’t make a keynote speech on how, despite 100 years of history that suggested otherwise, he was leading a conservative party really. To be sure, he spent the next 4 years nodding and winking about his admiration of Thatcher, but nothing so firm that it might be used against him later.

Cameron is going to be made to regret his claim to be a liberal, I promise you. This isn’t particularly because of anything that the Lib Dems do, but because his own rightwing aren’t going to wear it. Cameron is using his honeymoon period to shift the party’s tone and emphasis as far away from the right as possible, but by the time those policy reviews of his start to report back, that glowing period will be long gone. He would have been better advised to concentrate on getting his content right, and launching this initiative in a year or so when he possibly had actions to back up his rhetoric. As it is, we are likely to see the rhetoric haunt his later attempt for action.

It’s ironic, because at exactly the same time that the Lib Dems have realised that their “guerilla war” style campaigning is starting to have its limits and that attempting to appeal to all of the people all of the time is starting to make us look inconsistent and grasping, Cameron is attempting to reinvent the Tories in exactly that mold. I had a drunken conversation with one of his key lieutenants in drafting the barking 2005 Tory manifesto back in May. He predicted that Cameron was going to win the leadership contest, something I scoffed at at the time. But he also said that Cameron would win by running Rennard-style campaigns in the inner cities, causing a revival, and working closely with faith groups. Given that he was right about Cameron, and presumably was heavily involved in the recent leadership campaign, I have to assume that he is right about the other two predictions.

There are is a real problem with the idea of the Tories reinventing themselves as community politicians (although it has to be said that they already do a pretty good job of it in several areas). Firstly, it’s a long game. Community politics, which morphed into AL(D)C style campaigning, which has now morphed into the Rennard method (at each step having less and less to do with community), has been developed over the course of 40 years; that’s time Cameron does not have. The Tories aren’t simply going to be able to parachute into Manchester, start putting out leaflets and win elections. Last time I looked, the Tory rump that remains in the city is so swivel-eyed barking that if you gave them money to print leaflets, you’d have been better off giving it to the BNP. This style of campaigning is extremely activist intensive and activists are one thing they don’t currently have.

Aha! You say, but that’s where the faith groups come in. And indeed, the Tories have already been successful at co-opting other organisations to do their spadework. Have a look at the Vote OK website. Have a look at CRAG, who spent £600k in the general election that doesn’t even count towards the Tories’ overall limit. They’ve already piloted the single issue-front campaign, and it worked tremendously in the last general election. Better yet, it didn’t suffer from one inch of media coverage.

But there’s a problem with this type of campaigning, which is loss of control. Chris Rennard himself hates this within the Lib Dems, despite the fact that Lib Dems are generally quite sensible, moderate people. Adopting this strategy will effectively be to let some of the most barking Tories off the leash. The idea presumably is for Cameron to plead moderation and niceness while the Tory equivalent of the Mongol hordes rape and pillage up and down the country. Something tells me that “Christians for Cameron” aren’t exactly going to be campaigning for gay marriage and liberal drinking laws. That might have worked before the internet became so widespread, but it will be very difficult to pursue now. It might have worked if Cameron was able to be consistent on the national stage, but it is hard to see how he is going to be able to maintain this “liberal-slash-conservative” agenda without the wheels falling off long before 2008.

Whatever way you look at it, it is an acceptance that the Tories no longer see themselves as capable of winning a general election outright. They are falling back onto local politics in the way that the Liberals did and the Lib Dems are now struggling to break free of. This in itself is an acknowledgement of defeat. The only really frustrating thing is that the Lib Dems leadership currently seems to be more concerned with internal squabbling than on concentrating on the very real things it needs to do to go in the opposite direction.

UPDATE: Can’t believe I missed this from the Times yesterday:

It may not only be the left-leaning in the Liberal Democrats scratching their heads at this initiative. It would be understandable if Mr Cameron were to target the modernising or “Orange Book” tendency among Mr Kennedy’s MPs by contending that he too stood for market liberalism with a serious social conscience. This would be shrewd politics. His call yesterday, however, went much farther. It was aimed at a strain of Liberal Democrat sentiment which, on the whole, remains left-of-centre in inclination. Such people will be bemused and confused by the notion that a new Conservative Party intends to be a branch of Friends of the Earth.

This might all be entertaining in the short term but it makes for a strange longer-term strategy. The green pressure groups (and Liberal Democrats) whose approval the Tories appear to crave are not just looking for a commitment from the Leader of the Opposition to bicycle each day to work in Westminster. They want a dogmatic rejection of nuclear power. A sensible politician of the Centre or Centre Right should support that source of energy. The localism which other lobbies favour is of a scale that would make it impossible for Conservatives to introduce substantial market-orientated reforms of the public services.

Political opportunism is not without its price. It could allow a government led by Gordon Brown to present itself as a sober administration, prepared to make hard choices, pitted against an opposition that preferred inoffensive soft options. The Tories risk moving from being the “nasty party” to the “nothing party” — which is not much better. Mr Cameron probably is a “liberal conservative”, so there is no harm in him employing that language. He should not, though, leave the impression of being more liberal than conservative; he certainly does seem to be something of a political tart.

This, from the paper that until now has been foursquare behind both Cameron and a Kennedy departure.

5 thoughts on “Cameron’s new clothes

  1. Yes, it has been oddly uplifting.

    It will be interesting to see just how many defectors Cameron attracts. As there is always a small amount of floor-crossing around the country’s council chambers, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a few individuals that Cameron can scrape up for a news conference. If he can’t do that he will look pretty silly… He also might just lose one or two people to UKIP!

    I’m looking forward to our full council meeting next week, where I will make a few cheerful comments to the massed ranks of Conservative Councillors , almost all being Fox or Davis fans…

  2. “Cameron is going to be made to regret his claim to be a liberal, I promise you. This isn’t particularly because of anything that the Lib Dems do, but because his own rightwing aren’t going to wear it. ” And if he doesn’t back it up with action then
    then the empty rhetoric won’t convince the waverers.

    I call it the Cameron Conundrum

  3. The idea that the Tories are now going to target inner cities borders on the absurd. (1) They are way behind in most inner urban areas; (2) their activists are simply not interested in “pavement politics”; and (3) they do not need a single inner city seat to win the next General Election.

    I think Mr Cameron’s Washington puppet-masters will be reading out the riot act. It would be like Charles Kennedy telling Liberal Democrat activists to go and fight Labour in the South Wales Valleys, or the Tories in Beaconsfield or Kensington & Chelsea. Far better to put resources into places where we actually can win.

    And I detect a sense of deja vu. When Mrs Thatcher won the 1987 General Election, such was her triumphalist ardour that she announced that her party would be taking on the inner cities: “We want them too.” Within ten years, the Tories had lost some three quarters of their councillors in inner urban areas outside London. So much for megalomaniacal hubris.

    Cameron, in my judgment, is 10% substance and 80% hype. He became Leader of the Conservaive Party after a month of relentless propaganda from almost every section of the media. Cameron worship became the order of the day as normally sober commentators took leave of their senses (including Michael White of “The Guardian”.) The same thing happened when Blair took over the Labour Party in 1994, and it worked.

    Cameron is a largely synethetic character, a political thespian devoid of any bedrock values other than loyalty to his class. Like Blair, he was talent-spotted by Washington. The people Webster Tarpley calls “the invisible government” have recruited Cameron as Blair’s replacement, because they don’t want Gordon Brown (whose strings they fear they might not be able to pull). To win, Cameron needs Murdoch. One word from Washington, and he’ll get it. Therein lies the peril. (Or will Murdoch demand the privatisation of the BBC?)

    Of course Cameron is no liberal. He wants to force people to join the armed forces, for goodness sake! The Tory Party exists to preserve the interests of big business, landowners and (increasingly) the “invisible government”. Everything they do is in pursuit of that purpose. Cameron and his kind care not a stuff for the likes of you and I (or most of their own voters). They will say anything, absolutely anything, to get elected.

    As the lead piece suggests, Cameron might have to move so far to the centre to win new supporters that he alienates his own base. Let’s hope so.

  4. The last self-avowed liberal to lead the Conservative party was Benjamin Disraeli. (Churchill, by the time he was leader, was an ex-liberal by his own account).

    Disraeli was pretty successful, but he was effectively leader from 1846 and not PM until 1866, and it wasn’t until he became PM that he proclaimed his liberalism (“a truly liberal administration” (Hansard, 1866)).

    I think Cameron will have trouble dragging the Conservatives into a liberal position, but if he succeeds (not my bet) then he can hope for a Con-LibDem coalition after the next election, which is surely what this manoeuvering is all about..

    I need to sober up to manage more coherence than this.

  5. “The idea that the Tories are now going to target inner cities borders on the absurd. (1) They are way behind in most inner urban areas; (2) their activists are simply not interested in “pavement politics”; and (3) they do not need a single inner city seat to win the next General Election.

    I think Mr Cameron’s Washington puppet-masters will be reading out the riot act. It would be like Charles Kennedy telling Liberal Democrat activists to go and fight Labour in the South Wales Valleys, or the Tories in Beaconsfield or Kensington & Chelsea. Far better to put resources into places where we actually can win.”

    Angus – tripe. GWB in the 2000 Presidential election didn’t target Hispanic voters because he particularly thought they would vote for him. No, he targeted them because those he wanted to vote for him wanted a leader who targeted Hispanic voters and tried to connect with them. It is counter-intuitive, but it’s very clever – and good – politics.

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