Heir to Blair

Christopher Tayler on David Cameron and the New Tories

One morning a few months ago I put on a suit and went to Westminster to meet a senior Conservative MP. ‘We’re all on a journey,’ he told me when I asked whether his beliefs had changed, ‘all of us.’ Then, as an example of the ‘quality and range’ of the party’s new parliamentary candidates, he began to tell me about Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones. I hadn’t heard of him.

‘You should meet him,’ the MP said.

A press officer cut in. ‘He’s a Devon farmer, who set up an amazing social programme, which Channel 4 did a documentary on, to help underprivileged black kids from inner cities escape to the countryside, so a bit like working farms or city farms …’

‘It’s a great story,’ the MP said. ‘Came to England aged three from Jamaica. Grew up in sort of real poverty – the back end of Birmingham, big family, kids sleeping three to a bed.’ After various false starts, he ‘found his niche. Working for the BBC, in fact, as a producer on one of the early cookery programmes. And set up a marketing business …’

‘Bacon, sausages, chutney – things like that,’ the press officer said.

‘And created this brand,’ the MP continued, ‘called The Black Farmer. He maintains he’s the only black farmer in England. I’m sure it’s completely … not the case anymore, but you know, he’s a very engaging guy … And he’s a real star. Do brilliantly. And he got selected. Now, just as an indication of how the party’s changing, Wilfred got selected for Chippenham – white, middle-class, you know, deepest Wiltshire. And Wilfred tooled up to the selection meeting, wearing his jeans and an open-necked shirt, and just took them by storm. And they love him.’

‘Do you want to meet Wilfred?’ the press officer said.

‘Yeah, you should do.’

‘I could set that up.’

The message the MP and press officer were trying to get across was not just that the Conservative Party has a new black candidate. They were trying to show that the Conservatives were progressing nicely with the decontamination of their brand, ‘decontamination’ being the buzzword for the shearing off of voter-unfriendly associations. Before David Cameron, or ‘DC’, as he’s known, took over in December 2005, Conservative strategists had noted anxiously that focus groups would turn against almost anything – even, or especially, tax cuts – as soon as they were told it was Tory policy. Cameron, who was born in 1966 and became an MP in 2001, was elected to the leadership on the understanding that he would renew their brand. Before he stood for the leadership Cameron was known to the public, if he was known at all, as one of a group of youngish Conservatives who had been christened ‘the Notting Hill set’ by Derek Conway, an MP from a rival faction. In this context, Notting Hill, where Cameron and many of his friends live, connotes wealth, organic food, possible drugginess and a degree of social liberalism.

‘Decontamination’ seems to be working. Last year, for the first time since 1992, the Conservatives were consistently ahead in the polls; an ICM poll last month gave them a ten-point lead. Busy with its own troubles, the Labour Party has not found a dependable line of attack against its rejuvenated opponents. The ‘Dave the Chameleon’ campaign accompanying last year’s local elections was not a success. Accusing the Tories of having no policies didn’t work either. ‘Tony Blair says it’s all style and no substance,’ Cameron told the Conservative party conference last year. ‘In fact he wrote me a letter about it. Dear Kettle, You’re black. Signed Pot.’ On issues ranging from civil liberties to aviation, Labour has assailed the Conservatives from the right: ‘If they are helping us define ourselves on the centre ground of British politics,’ George Osborne, Cameron’s right-hand man and shadow chancellor, told the Times in September, ‘then thank you very much, Tony Blair.’ And, to borrow the Blair model, Cameron is still at the Bambi stage of development; his cardinal attributes are yet to be agreed on. Soft-featured, well fed, implacably cheerful, he’s an oddly compelling media performer, combining a talent for projecting reasonableness and niceness with cautious revelations of steelier qualities.

But despite the environmentally friendly metropolitan broad-mindedness Cameron transmits, and whatever he smoked behind the Eton bike sheds, what’s most arresting about the Tory leader is that he and many of his closest lieutenants are only very superficially reconstructed representatives of the old-fashioned upper class. Osborne, who will inherit a title, sometimes claims to be less posh than Cameron on the grounds that his public school, St Paul’s, is in London, and he didn’t board. Both sowed the seeds of tabloid merriment by joining a ludicrous club for rich boys while at Oxford, and even Cameron’s much advertised fondness for 1980s bands like The Smiths is best understood, his biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning suggest, as a mutation of county philistinism rather than a populist affectation.[*] His social liberalism, when not merely the product of good manners, seems to be a recent acquisition, while his mind-broadening PR job at Carlton TV was, Elliott and Hanning reveal, arranged for him by his mother-in-law so that he would not have spent his entire adult life in Westminster working for the Conservative Party.

Not everyone around him is so posh, however. Steve Hilton, his friend and chief strategist, is an enthusiast for the transformative powers of capitalism rather than a Conservative from the Shires; he’s also said to have voted Green in 2001. Michael Gove, another ally, is not a toff either and would fit in well at a neocon thinktank. With the help of an earlier generation of Tory modernisers, and a core group of Old Etonians and 1990s Central Office staffers, these men have set about giving the party a makeover. One of their first moves was to put a brake on policy production: policies are divisive and might be stolen or countered by Labour. A Cameron government, we’re told, would ‘share the proceeds of growth’ between tax cuts and generous investment in public services; carbon emissions would be taxed in a revenue-neutral, non-regressive way; and deregulation would lead to a flourishing voluntary sector without compromising standards. Explanations of how all this might work are not yet on offer, and we’re left to wonder about the ideas that lie behind Cameron’s slogans, about the thoroughness or otherwise of his transformation of the party, and about how much of it Conservative activists will put up with.

‘Don’t be disheartened,’ Oliver Letwin, the party’s head of policy, said in answer to a question from a young woman at Kent University last October. ‘Things have changed a lot. They’ve changed beyond recognition.’ The questioner – not a Conservative, she said afterwards – was complaining that she felt the tone of the campaign pressing for more women to be chosen as Tory candidates was patronising. Letwin, wearing a pale pink tie and flanked on the stage by a seated row of young modernisers, listened understandingly as she laid out her suspicions about the depth of cultural change in his party. An intense-looking middle-aged man on the other side of the lecture hall became agitated as she spoke. ‘Stupid cow,’ he hissed. The man had asked the first question of the evening, about the Conservative position on European integration. Letwin had replied that he was happy to discuss it but hoped not to do so all night. In many ways, he’d added smoothly, the European Union is an ‘invaluable’ institution – particularly when it comes to combating climate change.

It’s not so long, of course, since the Conservative Party spent most of its time ‘banging on about Europe’, as Cameron has put it. The UK’s forced departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992 had condemned John Major’s government to nearly five years of public disintegration, years in which the party’s anti-European ‘bastards’, as Major described them, reacted to the abrupt end of belief in Tory competence by doing their best to scupper his premiership. (Cameron was working as special adviser to Norman Lamont, the Tory chancellor, on Black Wednesday. ‘If you cut me down the middle,’ he told an interviewer before the last election, ‘you would find “Exchange Rate Mechanism” written on me like a stick of rock.’)

The students in the audience would have had memories of the Conservative Party under William Hague, who led it to defeat in 2001; his successor, the tragi-farcical Iain Duncan Smith, who lasted until November 2003; and Michael Howard, who stayed on after losing a third general election in 2005 in order to oversee an extended leadership contest. Duncan Smith had himself been a minor ‘bastard’, as had David Davis, the early favourite to succeed Howard. The Conservatives knew that they were seen, in the words of Theresa May, Duncan Smith’s party chairwoman, as the ‘nasty party’, but were too worried about upsetting the ‘core vote’ to do much about it. Hague campaigned on a platform of tax cuts, hostility to the EU, and resentment of asylum seekers; few Tory staffers have fond memories of those days. ‘It was awful,’ one former party worker told me, ‘just awful. I mean, it wasn’t even intellectual anti-immigration stuff.’ In 2005, Howard ran a stripped-down campaign based on fear of crime and, once again, resentment of immigration. Cameron, who knew how to handle the media, was made Howard’s head of policy co-ordination; his people apparently like to let it be known that he had ‘private doubts’ about some of Howard’s initiatives.

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[*] Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative (Harper, 320 pp., £18.99, March, 978 0 00 724366 2).