One of the things I find amusing about the modern media, and society in general, is how quickly well-known-facts become orthodoxy after an amazingly short period of time. Six months ago, Cameron was looking extremely shaky. Then, following Brown’s wobble and Gideon Osborne’s promise of tax breaks for dead rich people, it became an established Truth that the Tories were unstoppable and Labour is in terminal decline.
But neither of these “facts” ring true to me. Take the argument about Labour’s implosion. Iain Dale yesterday observed that “there’s so much about the present day Labour Party that reminds me of the Conservative Party circa 1996.” This is one of those seductive openers that memes use to invade our brains; it is after all a fact that history repeats itself and it follows that these things go in cycles. But what proof does Dale cite? A blog post on LabourHome being rude about cabinet ministers. It isn’t even particularly harsh, and Dale makes veiled attacks on Tory frontbenchers all the time. The fact that he has to grasp for such weak “evidence” speaks volumes. If anything, I’m rather surprised at how unsplit Labour are at the moment, given the situation they find themselves in.
In the same week, Iain made it clear how appalled he was by Tory environment spokesman Peter Ainsworth’s press release listing his “heroes and zeroes” of 2007, a view clearly shared by his commenters and those at Conservative Home. And the environment is only the start of it. There was of course the Grammar schools debacle, which forced Cameron to eventually wave the white flag by demoting David Willetts and peppering his speeches with exhortations for something called “grammar streaming”. There remains the issue over what exactly the Tory policy on the EU reform treaty is, and the rumble of discontent over this can only grow louder over the next 12 months. In 2007, the majority of Tory MPs defied Cameron by opposing the Sexual Orientation Regulations, just as they refused to back their own (now quite longstanding) policy for a reformed House of Lords.
The inconvenient truth is this: 16 years on from the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the Tories remain the most internally divided mainstream political party. A vote for the Conservatives is the epitomy of a vote for a pig in a poke. Cameron may, or may not be the enlightened “liberal” conservative that he claims to be, but he is still a prisonder of a reactionary old guard (and even reactionary Davisite “modernisers”) who simply ignore what he has to say if they don’t like it. And all it takes is a badly spun speech like Willetts’ on education earlier this year and they will resume their time-honoured practice of tearing strips off the leader.
Cameron knows this, and we’ve seen a shift in stance over the last six months whereby the Tory front bench offer their rabid party totemic hunks of meat to get their teeth into. Osborne’s IHT reform was one such hunk, which admittedly managed to hit the zeitgeist even though it only helped the very richest. This week we’ve seen two more ridiculous pledges. One for locking up the relatives of foreigners who outstay their visas (at a time when we already locking up more people than at any time in the past and have simply run out of room – who’s going to pay for it?) and another for replacing “target culture” with a system of fines on hospitals where patients are infected by so-called superbugs.
What is most remarkable about the latter is that it demonstrates that Cameron clearly has no idea about what is wrong with the target culture. The problem is that all targets are subject to the law of unintended consequences; but then so would a system of fines (a point made by the BMA).
Cameron has become keen on this sort of totemic gimmick, possibly under the stewardship of Andy Coulson; back in November he came up with that hare-brained scheme to force referendums on local authorities which exceeded a government-set target (sorry, “threshold”) for raising council tax. He called this the removal of council tax caps, possibly one of the most disingenuous statements of 2007 (what local authority would dare go above the government-imposed limit under such circumstances?). This appears to be what consists of Tory policy these days: a series of short, snappy, panaceas that will achieve nothing. They’ve learned all the wrong lessons from 11 years of New Labour.
A vote for the Conservatives is a vote for the worst excesses of the Blair era combined with the divisions of the Major era. My prediction is that in 2008, with the Tories having failed to put that much distance between themselves and their opponents in the opinion polls by the end of 2007, the penny will start to drop.
Where does this leave the Lib Dems? As potential beneficiaries for one. Even a cursory glance at their CVs should tell you that Clegg has far more substance than Cameron. Clegg’s challenge is to press this advantage home. But we should be wary of those siren voices who seem to want us to jump in bed with Cameron. While it is true that Cameron sounds more like a Lib Dem than Brown, a deal with him is a Faustian pact with his backbenchers. What would be the value in agreeing a shared position with Cameron – assuming we could – if the likes of Patrick Cormack can simply veto it retrospectively at a time of their choosing, to the loud applause of Conservative Home, Iain Dale et al?