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.
By refusing to denounce Europe or immigration, Letwin was displaying the new style of self-presentation that began with Cameron’s election to the leadership. Letwin’s answer to the young woman also reflected a new strategy. ‘Over the last fifteen years,’ Francis Maude, the party chairman, told me last December, ‘we became a party very much concentrated towards the south-east quadrant of England, with a heavy propensity to be supported by’ – he paused for emphasis – ‘balder voters. We were gradually deterring women from voting for us. In the last election, in 2005, for the first time ever since women got the vote, we had fewer votes from women than from men.’ Even as Letwin made it clear that the Conservative position on European integration – they are against it – hasn’t really changed, his bearing said something else. There would, it said, be no more Tory campaigns along the lines of Hague’s ‘14 days to save the pound’, Duncan Smith’s efforts to turn up the volume, or Howard’s ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ ‘For years,’ Cameron told the Conservative conference not long before Letwin’s trip to Kent, the country ‘desperately needed a sensible centre-right party … Well, that’s what we are today.’
Letwin, an enjoyably donnish figure who specialises in exuding – if not always exercising – judiciousness, said many other things that evening that weren’t calculated to smooth the feathers of intense-looking men who ask questions about Europe. Not only were the Conservatives not promising instant tax cuts, they weren’t ruling out tax increases either, if that was what it took to keep the country in the black. Poverty, he said emphatically, is ‘an injustice’. The Tories had underfunded public services in the past; they would not do so again. He called for greater investment in drug and drink rehabilitation, as in the Netherlands and in Sweden. The tone was conciliatory, almost collegial. There were no tight-lipped references to ‘Mister Blair’ of the kind favoured by serially outraged commentators. In the spirit of ‘grown-up politics’, a Cameronite catchphrase, he praised Labour’s good intentions and allowed that it had had one or two successes (though fewer than he’d have liked in limiting carbon emissions and improving social mobility). He spoke sweepingly and enthusiastically about schools, hospitals, social justice, the environment; and about his party’s optimism. Above all, he said, playing on an old Thatcherite slogan, a Conservative government would ‘roll forward the frontiers of society’.
Joel Charles, the chairman of the Kent University Conservative Association, who was seated on the stage and was also wearing a pale pink tie, nodded emphatically when Letwin delivered this line. Fifteen days earlier, it had been one of the main soundbites in Cameron’s closing speech at the party conference in Bournemouth, a speech entitled ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’. ‘For years,’ Cameron said, ‘we Conservatives talked about rolling back the state. But that is not an end in itself. Our fundamental aim is to roll forward the frontiers of society.’ This, in turn, was an amplification of a key passage in the speech he had given at the party conference in Blackpool the year before, the speech that is widely believed to have landed him the leadership. Cameron’s message then – ‘to the people living in our inner cities, of all races and religions’ – was another artful restatement of a celebrated Thatcher saying. ‘We know we have a shared responsibility,’ he said, ‘that we’re all in this together; that there is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state.’ His first speech at the 2006 party conference was entitled ‘We Stand for Social Responsibility’. Soon after he visited Kent University, Letwin would tell Spectator readers that Cameron’s notion of social responsibility is ‘a big idea. It is one of the biggest ideas that human beings have ever had.’
Many people have a hand in Cameron’s big idea, and in the modernising project generally. Tim Montgomerie, the proprietor of Conservativehome.com, a popular forum for party activists, never tires of pointing out that Duncan Smith – whose political secretary he once was – often used similar language on social justice. Michael Portillo, a Major-era ultra-Thatcherite who moved to the left after 1997 and then left the party when he didn’t win the leadership in 2001, claims some credit too. ‘The whole thing has been sitting there,’ he told John Lloyd in a Financial Times interview in March 2006, ‘pretty fully tailored, waiting for someone to wear it.’ Hague, who’s now shadow foreign secretary, was also seen as a moderniser when he became leader, and is sometimes said to be Cameron’s deputy in all but name.
‘Social responsibility’ in Cameron’s sense seems first to have been put forward by Conservative intellectuals as a campaigning tool during the Major government. It was felt, after Thatcher, that there was a need to reconcile belief in unfettered markets with the rhetoric of social solidarity. ‘Back to Basics’ became Major’s slogan, but the public understood it as a call for Victorian sexual mores and it backfired nastily. David Willetts, who considered running for the leadership himself before backing Cameron, had sketched an alternative in a 1994 pamphlet called Civic Conservatism. This argued that ‘the weakening of our civic institutions as government has encroached on them … is responsible for much of our social discontent.’ The state had ‘drained the life blood’ from the ‘institutions’ – ‘voluntary hospitals’, ‘our ancient universities’, ‘the local children’s playgroup’ and so on – that ‘stood between the individual and the government’. ‘The pernicious effect of heavy-handed regulation on local voluntary groups,’ Willetts wrote, ‘is greater than ever. Deregulation is therefore a crucial part of Civic Conservatism.’
These lines would fit comfortably into one of Cameron’s speeches, though he prefers ‘liberal Conservatism’ as a slogan, having rejected ‘civic’, perhaps because of its bureaucratic connotations, and dropped ‘compassionate’ due to its associations with George W. Bush. On the other hand, he’s said to have been impressed by the ideas expounded by Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992) and Compassionate Conservatism (2000). Olasky, like Willetts, sees the over-mighty state vampirising private charities and voluntary organisations; the state, he says, can’t administer ‘the combination of loving compassion and rigorous discipline’ with which faith-based welfare once saved paupers’ souls. A born-again Christian, Olasky is keen to secure state funding for religious groups, and not all his ideas travel well. Yet his heavily-footnoted arguments about the superiority of private charity over state action have clearly influenced the Conservatives, and Bush’s Olasky-inflected campaign speeches modifying Reaganite dogmas (‘a rising tide lifts many boats – but not all’) seem to have impressed Cameron’s speechwriters.
Also central to the project are the ideas of Steve Hilton, who left Tory politics in order to found Good Business, a consultancy promoting ‘corporate social leadership’, before returning to direct the rebranding of the party. Good Business (2002), a polemic-cum-mission statement written by Hilton and his business partner Giles Gibbons, is almost messianic in its faith ‘that not only is it possible to combine profit-making with socially beneficial outcomes, but that we should all work towards a situation in which helping society becomes the single best way to make profits.’ Good Business is filled with praise for Blair as well as Thatcher. Not only do Hilton and Gibbons argue fervently that free trade could end poverty and that brands can change more than consumer behaviour, they sometimes make concrete proposals which strike a recognisably Cameronian note. ‘Start sponsoring innovative projects,’ they advise forward-thinking chief executives, ‘that fit your new social purpose. What about sponsoring the creation of new cycle lanes?’
If these ideas seem all over the place, it’s probably because Cameron’s talk of social responsibility is designed to change perceptions of the party while appeasing as many Conservative factions as possible. His aim is to persuade voters that extending market values is less important to the Tories than conserving traditional social structures. ‘If it comes to a collision between our wealth as a nation and the wellbeing of families,’ he said in a speech to a youth group in his Oxfordshire constituency this February, ‘I choose families.’ He does his best, however, to persuade people that there need be no such collision, since he holds that family values, ‘social entrepreneurship’, and the economy in general, can all be stimulated through deregulation and tax cuts. The new rhetoric can accommodate crowd-pleasing sermons on underclass fecklessness as well as swipes at corporate misbehaviour, and it allows the Tories to highlight Labour’s failures in a compassionate-sounding way while assuring grudging taxpayers that their pain can be lessened. Not everyone in the party is up to speed on Cameron’s ‘four pillars’ of social responsibility – one senior MP manages the personal, corporate and civic pillars, but has a tendency to substitute ‘parental’ for ‘professional’ – but few of them seem to find the creed itself alarming. ‘At the end of a period of Conservative government based on social responsibility,’ Maude told me, ‘you’d have a strong state, but doing less, and doing it better.’
In Keynes Lecture Theatre One, however, no one asked Letwin whether his desire to ‘roll society forward’ could be construed as an admission that people had been left exposed by the rolling back of the state under Thatcher. It was hard to remember that this sensible-sounding politician, speaking on behalf of a party that aims, in Cameron’s words, ‘to sort things out in a sensible way’, was one of the principal architects of the poll tax, and hard to believe, too, that before the last election he – with the aid of his future boss – killed off a pledge to use vehicle excise duty to limit carbon emissions. The only false note came during an unbuttoned disquisition on political rhetoric. It’s no good, he said, making speeches in the style of Pitt or Disraeli these days, because people are used to more informal, conversational kinds of debate, ‘from business life’. He hesitated slightly before adding: ‘Or university life, life at the doctor’s, you know.’ On other occasions, any topic too redolent of earlier Conservative preoccupations was paired more smoothly with something less traditional – the environment usually.
After the Q&A ended, Letwin posed for a photograph with the KUCA members – five women and 12 men, most of them wearing suits – before strolling out to the car park. The Conservative students went to nurse Diet Cokes beside the inactive patio heaters outside the college bar, sheltering from a karaoke night inside. They were, they said, the biggest political society on campus, easily outnumbering Kent Labour Students at a recent Lazer Quest event. (Labour won, one of them told me – though only, he said, because KUCA had been made to split into smaller teams.) Most of them had grown up in Tory households. As they saw things, tuition fees were painful but necessary, as was the invasion of Iraq. Joel Charles, who comes from Harlow and spent part of a summer vacation working in Letwin’s office, enthused in a professional manner over the ‘modern and compassionate’ candidate chosen to fight his marginal home constituency. Only one of the students had serious misgivings about the party’s new direction, but he was no longer a member, having failed to renew his subscription after Davis lost the leadership contest. The Conservatives, he felt, had become ‘too politically correct’. ‘You can’t even use stereotypes any more,’ this 18-year-old said. ‘The way the party is these days, if you say women can’t drive, they turn round and label you a sexist.’
On 3 December 2006, the Sunday Telegraph reported that a focus group convened by Frank Luntz, a Republican ‘strategic communications’ consultant, had compared Cameron to Tunbridge Wells, a cat, white wine and a Rolls Royce. They had also given snap descriptions of the Tory leader: ‘family man’, ‘posh’, ‘English’, ‘nice but dim’, ‘highly intelligent’, ‘quasi-cyclist’, ‘cheerful’, ‘unknown quantity’, ‘slick’, ‘interesting’, ‘directionless’ and ‘PR-friendly’. Luntz, whose advice to the Conservatives on the basis of this meeting was upbeat but cryptic (‘Again, focus on reaching voters visually and verbally,’ he wrote, ‘not just through soundbites and photos’), had been hired by the paper to assess Cameron on his first anniversary as leader mostly on the strength of a BBC Newsnight segment he had put together during the 2005 conference. Back then, responses to Cameron had been warmer. Luntz had played clips of each leadership candidate to a roomful of floating voters. Cameron, they said, was ‘passionate’, ‘believable’ and ‘very genuine’. ‘I’ve never seen a turnabout like this,’ Luntz crowed as Davis and Kenneth Clarke were dismissed as ‘not charismatic’, ‘old-style’, ‘very boring’, ‘all I, I, I’. The next day Cameron was due to give his leadership pitch to the conference; DVDs and printed summaries of the Newsnight package were hurriedly distributed to MPs and other delegates by his campaign team.
Before Newsnight aired, it was assumed that party activists would favour Davis’s ideological zeal over Cameron’s more voter-attractive characteristics, just as they had voted for Duncan Smith not Kenneth Clarke. Cameron offered a nicely framed plot reversal, and columnists were not slow to take him up. ‘This week Goliath strode into battle,’ Mary Ann Sieghart wrote in the Times, meaning Davis. ‘We don’t yet know whether young David has fatally felled his hitherto invincible foe, but if he has, his weapons were flair, freshness, bravery and a genuine feel for contemporary politics.’ Beyond this lay the prospect of yet another storyline, which Cameron was reported to have summed up by describing himself as ‘the heir to Blair’.
This notion both acknowledged Blair’s reshaping of the landscape and positioned the Conservatives to exploit it in the coming fight with Gordon Brown, New Labour’s heir in waiting. ‘Imagine a Tory leader promising that when his government came in there would be no special favours for those who contribute to Conservative Party funds; for employers, businessmen and the City; for big landowners, rich people and posh people.’ So wrote Julian Barnes, describing Blair’s arrival on the scene to readers of the New Yorker in 1994. Cameron has gone to great lengths to present himself as such a leader. The party has tentatively distanced itself from big business. Public sector workers are courted rather than attacked, and there has been an attempt to make environmentalism part of the Tory brand. The Conservatives have made a show of siding with the prime minister against his backbenchers on policies such as last year’s Education Bill, while treating their own barnacled elements with New Labour-like disdain. The Cornerstone Group, an assortment of hard-right MPs, is known to Cameron’s people as ‘Tombstone’. Its members are unhappy because Cameron has not fulfilled his pledge to withdraw Tory MEPs from the (federally tainted, according to them) centre-right grouping in the European Parliament.
For much of 2006, complaints from such traditionalists were easily shrugged off. It was understood, within the conventions of the ‘heir to Blair’ storyline, that outbursts from the likes of Norman Tebbit could be interpreted as further evidence of success. By last winter, many senior Conservatives could give briefings in their sleep to the effect that there would be no turning back, though not always for attribution. Thatcher, they’d point out, had offered to work with the government on union reform when in opposition. Today’s so-called Thatcherites were too fixated on her meddling 1990s incarnation. Having come of age in the 1990s, the current leadership had consigned all that to the past: this was a generational change as much as anything. And they had accepted important aspects of the Blairite settlement, unlike some of the old guard, who persisted in viewing the years since 1997 as a reversible aberration. People close to Cameron also liked to point out that none of the right-wing papers had supported him in the leadership contest until he’d already won it. ‘If they don’t like what we’re doing,’ one of them told me, ‘tough.’ A frontbencher suggested that Rupert Murdoch, who seemed until recently to be putting his money on Brown, and to have ordered his editors to behave accordingly, isn’t ‘as in touch as he’s cracked up to be’.
By the time these fighting words were spoken, however, there were signs that disquiet about Cameron’s tactics was spreading. There was predictable uneasiness about publicity stunts such as Cameron’s trip to a Norwegian glacier last April, which was described by an unnamed Tory frontbencher as ‘barmy’, obliging Maude to issue a rebuke. July’s ‘hug a hoodie’ episode appalled many of his supporters. His handling of crime was ‘a disaster’, a prominent conservative commentator told me, claiming that several shadow cabinet members felt the same way. ‘John Reid would have this lot for breakfast,’ a former party worker and self-described ‘Essex Thatcherite’ had said to me a few weeks earlier, echoing many Tories’ morbid admiration for the authoritarian home secretary.
On foreign policy, there are clear divisions in Cameron’s kitchen cabinet. The official line is that Britain’s relationship with the US should be ‘solid but not slavish’, and Cameron and Hague have clearly decided to be seen to be distancing themselves from Bush. Osborne, on the other hand, as well as admiring Bush’s ‘relentless good humour and optimism’ and skilful use of surrogates to attack his opponents, has neoconservative opinions. ‘There are few voices to be heard putting the other view,’ he wrote in the Spectator in 2004, ‘that the terrorists pose a fundamental threat to our way of life, that fight them we must, that Iraq was part of that fight and that we are winning.’ And Gove would agree. In September, he published a short book called Celsius 7/7 affirming his faith in the shakier axioms of the ‘global war on terror’: Islamism is a monolithic global conspiracy comparable to Nazism and Soviet Communism; for Israel to make peace with the Palestinians would be Munich-like appeasement; invading Iraq was a sensible counter-terrorist measure marred by too few shows of ‘exemplary’ force (‘in Fallujah, the effect has been beneficial’), and so on. Osborne’s known sympathy for these notions has led the party’s dwindling band of true believers to call repeatedly for him to swap jobs with Hague. Gove’s ideas on foreign escapades are not widely shared in the party, but he has had an influence on its domestic policy towards political Islam. Many moderate Conservatives think attitudes like his will be an electoral liability.
And Cameron’s efforts to dispel the impression that his party is capital’s political mouthpiece have gone down badly with many right-wing journalists, as well as with the rank and file. What business had a Conservative leader knocking W.H. Smith for selling half-price Terry’s chocolate oranges? In November, the launch of an online campaign urging consumers to avoid getting into too much debt by ignoring ‘the inner tosser’ – announced by Osborne in a speech at Policy Exchange, an up-to-the-minute right-of-centre think tank – provoked widespread derision, particularly since the Conservative Party was £27 million in debt. Paul Staines, a right-wing libertarian former rave organiser who runs a widely read Westminster blog under the name ‘Guido Fawkes’, wrote that it showed ‘all the hallmarks of being a coke-crazed ad exec’s inspired idea thought up after lunch in Soho’. Had not Thatcher herself deregulated the credit market? Yet such complaints were muted in comparison to those triggered by Cameron’s decision to visit Iraq when he could have been addressing the CBI’s annual jamboree. His handlers and lieutenants insisted that this was just a scheduling mishap, but many in the party thought it was contrived deliberately to offend.
Since January there has been a shift of emphasis, designed to mollify traditionalists. Cameron has recently decried ‘anti-business sentiment’, accused the Muslim Council of Britain of being dominated by extremists, and given his rhetoric on crime and social breakdown a more punitive edge. But the main problem with the script, from the Conservatives’ point of view, is that the same scene has been playing for far too long. Blair’s inability to get off the stage has made politics feel like a ‘phoney war’. Even the prime minister’s poor approval ratings don’t afford much comfort to Tories who wonder why their leader wants to emulate him, and as Blair’s presumptive heirs wait nervously for the real hostilities to start, there’s little the Conservatives can do to drive the narrative forward. Instead, they’re working hard to change the characterisation, trying to pin Blair’s perceived vices on Brown while assimilating his virtues into Cameron’s persona. On ‘spin’, Cameron told the Daily Mail in December: ‘Brown is probably the source of the problem more than Tony Blair … He’s a past master of that.’ The prime minister’s taunt that Cameron would be laid out by ‘a big clunking fist’ in the next general election was quickly seized on too. Conservatives now speak constantly of ‘clunking’ statism, and Cameron told an interviewer that the phrase reminded him of ‘the boot stamping on the human face for ever’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
A youngish Tory MP went on a fact-finding trip to South Africa a year or so ago. He visited Robben Island and saw Nelson Mandela’s cell there. It was, he told a journalist, tremendously moving. The journalist asked if his party’s vexed relationship with Mandela hadn’t made him feel uncomfortable. This puzzled the MP, who, it slowly became clear, did not know about Thatcher’s refusal to countenance sanctions against South Africa, her belief that the ANC was nothing more than a terrorist organisation, the ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ T-shirts worn by radical Conservative students in the 1980s and so on. The journalist filled him in. The MP looked relieved: it was such a long time ago. The great thing about being one of Cameron’s Conservatives, he said, is that you don’t have to get bogged down in all that history.
In fact, when Cameron paid a visit to Johannesburg last summer, he had a photocall with Mandela, during which he disowned ‘the mistakes my party made in the past’. But what’s interesting about this story is not so much what the MP did not know as the attitude to the bad old days his retort exemplified. In this respect, his instinct had not failed him. ‘It’s the past,’ a frontbencher close to Cameron told me when I asked about Thatcherism. ‘It’s the 1980s. It’s, like, a long time ago.’ He laughed. ‘When were you born?’ he said to one of his aides.
‘You see? And people will be voting in the next election who weren’t even born when Thatcher was in power.’
Chris Grayling, the shadow minister for transport, took a similar position on rail privatisation when he talked to me in January. ‘We just have to draw a line under it,’ he said, ‘and move on.’ He was happy to concede that the Major government’s decision to sell the tracks and trains separately had not worked out well, but that was it. I spoke to him before Labour reportedly opened discussions with Network Rail about reintegrating tracks and trains in Scotland. Grayling’s line now is that the party is pleased ‘in principle’ to see that the government accepts the need for improvement. Grayling’s attitude to his party’s support for the invasion of Iraq was also focused on ‘moving on’, though here he perhaps spoke less as a Conservative than as a representative of the entire political class.
High-ranking Conservatives, then, have tried to put the past behind them. But only when it suits them. Thatcher, Maude told me, took climate change seriously ‘well before it became remotely fashionable’. ‘The first Thatcher government,’ Osborne pointed out, ‘put up taxes.’ Professional politicians of all parties tend to treat history as both a malleable set of precedents and a dustbin for unpalatable facts. If the Conservatives are currently obliged to move between the two positions at high speed, it’s mostly because the competing demands of change and continuity are difficult to manage when you want to show that you have changed – without reminding voters why you needed to do so – while reassuring your supporters that these changes have deep roots in your party’s history. And Cameron’s patrician qualities cut both ways here. Although they make him seem inarguably a Tory to outsiders, they alienate Thatcherites, who suspect him of not connecting with ‘aspirational’ voters.
Balancing change and continuity, having its cake and eating it, has been a particularly difficult act for the leadership in its efforts to reform the party machine. ‘At the last election,’ Maude wrote in the Spectator in 2002, ‘we selected only candidates who were straight white males to fight Conservative-held seats.’ Showing ‘respect for all’ – ‘male and female’, ‘black and white’, ‘gay and straight’ – was, he wrote, ‘not about “pandering to minorities”. It is about being a decent party.’ It was also ‘no more than the entry ticket to get into the race’. Like many of the other suggestions in Maude’s article (‘being less partisan’, ‘localism’, focusing on ‘voluntary organisations’ and ‘social justice’), being more inclusive is now high on Cameron’s list of priorities.
For many activists, though, this merely shows that Cameron spends too much time in West London. Pressure from above to select women or gay or ethnic minority candidates is ‘political correctness’ at its most extreme. The demotion of Patrick Mercer – the Conservative ‘homeland security’ spokesman who said that as an army officer he had come across ‘a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as a cover for their misdemeanours’ – was, to many of these people, an incomprehensible capitulation to metropolitan namby-pambyism. Not surprisingly, therefore, the introduction of a centralised A-list of candidates has been resisted by the constituency parties, often in the name of localism. Women make up 37.5 per cent of those so far selected from the A-list, which represents progress, though the leadership wanted 50 per cent, while ethnic minority candidates make up 5 per cent; the target was twice that, and Cameron has set up an Ethnic Monitoring Group in response. And the ‘A-listers’ who have made it through are sometimes problematic. Priti Patel, the candidate for Braintree in Essex, for example, is an outspoken supporter of capital punishment who told the selection meeting that the UK would adopt the euro ‘over my dead body’.
The Conservatives, when I first approached them, were full with ideas about representatively different people I should talk to, besides Emmanuel-Jones. It was suggested that I should meet Sayeeda Warsi, a Muslim woman from Dewsbury who is one of the party’s five vice chairs, with special responsibility for cities. A plain-speaking solicitor with a disconcerting habit of referring frequently to ‘the brown people’ (‘it’s all about supporting the brown people’), Warsi marched against the invasion of Iraq, and I was given to understand that, in contrast to their rivals, the Conservatives don’t come down with a clunking fist on spokespersons with unorthodox views on such issues, applying instead a principled distrust of centralised direction. Immigrant communities should, Warsi told me, be natural constituencies for the Tories. I asked why they aren’t. ‘For historical reasons,’ she said. It was suggested, too, that I meet Margot James, another vice chair, with special responsibility for women: ‘Margot’s great. Have you heard of her? Her girlfriend is …’
I didn’t get to meet James, but I did attend the Conservative Women’s Organisation’s 75th Annual Conference, where a similar mixture of awkward well-meaningness and naked political calculation was in evidence. The schedule was a careful blend of old and new, with appearances from Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, and from the TV cook Clarissa Dickson-Wright, who won the day’s loudest ovation with an especially scornful one-liner targeting ‘Mister Blair’. Fiona Hodgson, the CWO’s current chairman (the CWO does not use terms like ‘chair’ or even ‘chairwoman’), announced that it was ‘marvellous’ to be joined by Shazia Ovaisi, the chairman of their newly formed Muslim Women’s Group. She also mentioned that there were some additions to the line-up of what the programme called ‘fabulous stalls’. Sure enough, the delegates entered the waiting area – where a suited young man prowled with a digital video camera, joking at one point to a woman with an American accent that he’d have to film her because ‘of course we need the ethnic minorities’ – to discover that the Countryside Alliance had been joined by Breakthrough Breast Cancer, Action Aid and an organisation that provides loans for small businesses in the developing world. Tea and coffee were served. Then, to the sound of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’, the delegates climbed the stairs to the main hall for a panel discussion on ‘international women’s human rights’.
A soppy-stern attitude to male domination prevailed at the CWO conference, and Cameron played on it masterfully when he finally turned up. But the elderly Tory ladies were unfazed by such gestures as the use of their conference for the launch of another counter-stereotypical ad campaign, this one aimed at ‘raising awareness of sex trafficking’. What the party is really trying to do, at least in some parts of the country, is to remind people that it exists. In January, I accompanied Chris Grayling on a visit to Merseyside, a trip he said he makes every three weeks or so; like most members of the shadow cabinet, Grayling, whose seat is in Surrey, has been given the task of showing the Tory flag in one of the hostile regions outside the South-East. ‘It’s mood music,’ he said at Lime Street station. There are winnable seats in the area, he explained, ‘and if we’re invisible in Liverpool then we’re nowhere.’ People, on the whole, appeared happy to see him lending weight to the campaign to save Greenways Special School, meeting the management of John Lennon Airport and so on. One local bigwig, a man with strong views on NHS bureaucracy, was keen to arrange a working lunch. ‘We haven’t seen a Tory round here,’ he said, ‘since – well, it’s like seeing an osprey.’
Grayling, who in 2005 acted as campaign manager for Liam Fox, is not a member of Cameron’s inner circle. Even so, his emphasis on pragmatism – on what plays in ‘the Dog and Duck on a Friday night’, as he put it, ‘or, better, Tesco on Saturday morning’ – seemed to fit well with Cameron’s style. The Tory leader comes across in most accounts as a man so unreflectingly immersed in Conservative politics that his core beliefs don’t strike him as being political. ‘I loved all that music but I didn’t agree with it,’ he told an interviewer when quizzed about his youthful admiration for The Specials. ‘Ghost Town’, an anti-Thatcher number, is ‘a great song’, he added, though of course ‘Thatcher was right.’ The ability to say this kind of stuff with a straight face might be a big part of his basic appeal. Like his poshness, it doesn’t endear him to Tory ideologues, but that too has made it easier for him to revive the traditional claim that the Conservative Party is not ideological in the manner of other parties. He’s someone a small-c conservative could vote for with little sense that doing so is a political act. Equally, a well-wisher only has to look at him to know that various ideas about the ends of politics can be taken as read.
‘Let’s be clear,’ Osborne said when I asked him a week later if the new Tory emphasis on voluntary groups wasn’t in danger of forcing people to be supplicants. ‘People are being failed by the state as it is, right. So it’s not as if the state is currently providing well for these people.’ Labour, he said, has disproved ‘the theory that if you simply expand the size of all these big government agencies, then you’re going to tackle some of these social problems. When in fact what we have is poor education, poor healthcare, violent crime, whatever.’ I asked if the Conservatives I’d spoken to who saw him as a more reassuringly right-wing figure than others in the party leadership were mistaken. ‘I’ve said some quite tough things to the party about not being able to offer tax cuts at the election,’ he said. ‘But here we are, David and myself. We are Conservatives. We believe in smaller government. We believe in lower taxes, if and when the economy can afford it. We believe in individuals taking on more responsibility for themselves. We believe in a bigger civic society and a smaller government. So when I hear people say, you know, gosh, you’re a Conservative, it doesn’t really surprise me’ – a jocular note came into his voice – ‘because I always knew I was.’