The Not-Norman-Tebbit Party
Can Cameron's Conservatives pull off the remarkable feat of appearing even more of an empty shell than New Labour?
It is one of those events that remind you of the old philosophical question about whether a falling tree really makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it. If the Conservative Party conference were not reported all over the media, would it really have been taking place?
Even by the sedate and stage-managed standards of past Tory gatherings, there is little of any consequence taking place in Bournemouth this week. By far the biggest challenge facing Cameron has come not from within his party, but from the police investigation into Tory fundraising as part of the loans-for-peerages ‘scandal’. Yet the news has been full of reports of raging debates and life-and-death struggles for the soul of the party. It is a striking illustration of the widening gap between the media world, where Conservative leader David Cameron is everywhere, and the real world, where almost nobody is talking about him.
Cameron is using the Tory Party conference in the same way that he has used a trip to a Norwegian glacier or a whistlestop drive through India – as another platform to impress the media, apparently the core constituency he is chasing now.
For Cameron, the Conservative Party is now as much unwanted, cumbersome baggage as the Labour Party has been to Tony Blair for more than a decade. The Tories’ great white hope, a former PR man by profession, looks as if he would prefer to run for prime minister as a non-party ‘personality’, advertised via a multimillion-pound publicity budget and his own web-cameron, his PR-friendly policies dreamt up by unaccountable consultants and celebrities like his green guru Zac Goldsmith.
Also like Blair before him, Cameron appears to see his party primarily as something to define oneself against. In an age without defining political principles, these people aim to show leadership by making a show of ditching their parties’ (admittedly outdated) traditions. The underlying message is something along the lines of, ‘You and I may not know what I stand for just now, but I want you to know that I’m not like them. I am the Future, not the Past’, etc, etc.
The past three Conservative leaders tried a similar tack, but lost their nerve and reverted to right-wing type when the pressure of a General Election campaign became too intense. Having witnessed those campaigns end in humiliating defeats, Cameron is determined to press ahead with distancing himself from Tory traditions. Witness his pointed rejection of Thatcherism in his pre-conference speech on Sunday.
Cameron has a problem, however: how do you define yourself against a party that does not know what it is for? When Blair was designing New Labour’s PR image, he at least had the rump of Old Labour against which to make a theatrical stand. He could tear up Clause 4 of the party constitution – the soul of British socialism to the Labour left – and take on the left in the party and the trades unions. Over the years, the continuing presence of a few prominent left-wingers on the national executive and in parliament has given Blair opportunities to try to reaffirm what New Labour stands for, if only by default.
By comparison, what does Cameron have against which to define his new Conservatism? The remarkable thing is that the traditionalists in the Tory Party, that most traditional of institutions, have crumbled even further and faster than the ruins of Old Labour. The Conservative Party is close to achieving the seemingly impossible – looking like even more of an empty shell than Labour. It is almost as if the only equivalent of Clause 4 that might stir old-fashioned Tory anger would be if Cameron were to call for the abolition of the monarchy.
Of course, there is plenty of bitterness in certain Tory quarters about what Cameron is doing. But it is largely petty personal griping, devoid of meaning. For example, many in the media have tried to play up the rows over taxation policy between the new Cameroons and the old Thatcherites, after the former refused the latter’s demand that he commit the Tories to tax cuts. But this is a phoney war. As BBC political editor Nick Robinson pointed out, it is not even a debate about whether tax cuts would be a good thing under a future Tory government, but rather about whether it will scare off voters (and the all-important media electorate) if they commit the party leader to making them today. For Cameron, avoiding rash promises on taxation is a symbolic statement that he accepts politics must now take place on the narrow terrain carved out by Blair and Brown. For their part, leading tax ‘rebels’ have gone out of their way to make plain that, actually, they really agree with ‘Dave’.
It was certainly extraordinary to see some Tory constituency members booing party chairman Francis Maude at their own conference, an unheard-of display of disaffection at this annual loyalists’ rally. It confirmed that Cameron is even less able than Blair to command proper authority over his party. Indeed, Tory Party membership has continued to fall since he became leader. But what was the Maude ruckus really about? Not the party’s policy or politics, but the leadership’s attempt to impose a sort of celebrity A-list of suitable candidates on local parties. In other words, it is about image (what the Conservatives should look like) and turf (whether central office or constituency committees should pick potential MPs). How very New Labour.
Whether chasing the media vote is sufficient to win Cameron a General Election remains to be seen. An exhausted New Labour government under Gordon Brown would certainly offer an inviting target. But Cameron is not doing as well as many expected in the polls, or in local or by-elections. Popular mistrust of the Tory Party – especially in the north of England and in Scotland – remains resistant to his charm offensive. Like many others today, Cameron is trying to connect with public cynicism about politics and politicians. But that risks being a self-defeating exercise, unless you have something else of substance to offer.
Cameron may be right to say that the Tories do not need piles of detailed policy proposals just now, as they start to rebuild their house from the bottom up. If you have a distinct and deeply held vision of Politics with a capital ‘P’, specific policies are less important. Indeed, it is the absence of Politics that has led New Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Tories to produce paper-mountains of policies, targets and goals at recent elections. If condemning chocolate oranges and putting a micro-windmill on his house are Cameron’s notions of big ideas, however, his eventual micro-proposals are likely to be too microscopic to be visible to the voter’s naked eye.
Just about the only thing of substance available for Cameron to take a stand against in the Tory Party appears to be Lord Tebbit, the former party chairman and keeper of the Thatcherite flame. How the Cameroons must sigh with relief whenever Tebbit makes another unreconstructed remark, giving them a chance to refute it via the media and hopefully appear modern and moderate by comparison. Whether they can reinvigorate political life and win the real world over by standing as little more than the Not-Norman-Tebbit-Party is another matter.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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