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 Â£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 â€œOrange Bookâ€ tendency among Mr Kennedyâ€™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 â€œnasty partyâ€ to the â€œnothing partyâ€ â€” which is not much better. Mr Cameron probably is a â€œliberal conservativeâ€, 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.