Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Cameronian wins the crown

Or the poisoned chalice, depending on your point of view. I'm depressed - it must be some kind of milestone when not only policemen start looking younger but when the Conservative Party go and elect a leader who is actually younger than you.

But if I were a Conservative, I'd be feeling rather chipper this evening because from the field of available candidates, Cameron was undoubtedly the best choice. Before even considering whether he is equal to the task, it's worth considering what Cameron and his election represents for the Tories.

For one, it would tend to indicate that they have at least started to kick the dangerous habit political parties so often fall into of mistaking their own party activists for the electorate. A mistake because the 'grassroots' in any political party are almost always more ideological and partisan than the ordinary moderately politically interested voter and quite often, to be frank, a good deal more unpleasant, in my experience.

What could illustrate this point better than looking at the leaders the Tories have come up with since they foolishly embraced party democracy? Howard doesn't really count because his was a coronation as an act of desperation, and Hague only half-counts because it was he who invented the silly rules in the first place. Rather it is IDS who was the Tory 'people's choice' par excellence, chosen largely for his ideological purity and his 'heroic' rebellion against the Major regime during the passage of the Maastricht Treaty, the rank and file having deluding themselves that his obsession with the machinations of the EU was as important to floating voters as it was to them. That Labour has had if anything a longer record of this sort of destructive wishful thinking is a point to which I'll return and I'll leave this one with the observation that the Davis camp's criticism of Cameron as another Blair was misplaced: this is exactly what the Conservatives need because what Blair showed was that an ugly party needs a leader that seems nicer than they are, better-looking if possible and not quite one of them. I think the more perceptive amongst the Tories have learned this lesson. If you want a comparison, it's a lesson that the US Democrats remembered when they chose Clinton and then rapidly forgot when they opted for Al Gore and then John Kerry.

Whether Cameron is equal to the task or not should not distract attention from what his election means for the Tories. They've decided they want to be elected again, a step of no small importance. To criticise his lack of policies misses the cultural significance: enough Conservatives seem to have realised that while promising to punish those in society you consider deviant may well make the party conference moist, it doesn't wash well with the overwhelming majority of the electorate who know single-parents for the most part suffer rather than luxuriate and who probably either know personally or who have met people who use illegal narcotics but for the most part manage to avoid becoming crazed junkies or crack-whores.

Speaking of drugs, one wonders if the the Tory faithful hadn't in the past been ingesting rather a lot of them if they imagined that figures like Hague and IDS would return them to power. With Cameron they seem to have understood the importance of charisma. Anne Perkins has a rather sharp piece on this in the Guardian. She argues, rightly in my view, that when people argue that Attlee would have never survived the modern media age, they are perhaps overlooking the way in which this quiet, understated politician personified the mood of the times. She makes the shrewd observation that while Tony Benn could (and still does) bang on about people not considering the 'ishoos', this ignores the fact that the very issues he was concerned about only got the publicity they did because Benn was something of a personality on his own right.

And what she has to say about Blair deserves the attention of those Labour party supporters, members and MPs who imagine that it is he who is the sole source of their problems: the likes of the embittered Glenda Jackson et al are merely repeating the same mistake they have made in the past when they thought Foot-Hattersley was a winning ticket if they are deluded enough to think it is they and their preoccupations that are more appealing to the electorate than what is presently on offer. The criticism that New Labour has squandered two massive Commons majorities is entirely valid but one should make it in the knowledge that they wouldn't have been there to squander in the first place, had it not been for Blair.

It's important because the Labour Party is entering a dangerous phase. The Iron Chancellor is as Prime Minister likely to inherit an economic situation that should be all too familiar to the Labour party. Despite the rhetoric, Brown has been in some ways like just like every other Labour Chancellor: he has ended up spending a lot, and borrowing a lot because he didn't think he could afford to be honest about the tax increases that he either knew must have been necessary, as his opposite number George Osborne suggested - or he didn't anticipate them, which would tend to cast doubts on his competence.

The reality of the situation is that Brown inherited a relatively benign set of economic circumstances from the Major years; a fairly hefty increase in taxation from Norman Lamont which curbed excessive consumer demand plus the ejection of Sterling from the ERM that ushered in a period of cheap money - a good combination for British exports. He probably deserves credit for not buggering it up completely, no mean feat for a British Chancellor, but he is bound to inherit as PM an economy where people feel the shoe pinching more than they have done for several years.

This is where I think Polly Toynbee was wrong in her article in the Guardian today. She argues that "tax and spend is popular" but I don't think the electorate is quite so keen on it as she is when it becomes rather more experientially apparent to the average voter than it would be to her that Prudence has been spending rather more than he has been taxing. In this context, it's not difficult to imagine Brown looking rather too old, grumpy and Calvinist compared to the fresh-faced Mr Cameron. If no serious economic alternative is being offered, why have capitalism with frowns when you can have it with smiles? Insubstantial? Deliberately so.

And for the background, those of us who don't care to see another Tory administration in this country should never forget the Labour party's capacity to seriously injure itself whilst navel-gazing. Polly Toynbee writes that "Labour has nothing to fear but its own demons". As if that wasn't rather their problem in the first place.

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