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Wednesday, July 29, 2009 

How the Cameroons will govern.

It says something about just how low most assume Labour's chances of victory are at the next election that we're already moving on to wondering how Cameron's Conservatives will govern and whom they'll govern for, although even Peter Mandelson is now admitting that Labour are the "underdogs" as far as next year is concerned. Partially this has been sparked by Simon Heffer, why-oh-whying as he is wont to do, about how Cameron isn't up to snuff as far as he's concerned on his true blue convictions. Both Bob Piper and Dave Osler agree, the latter summing it up with his observation, based on Norwich North last weekend, that the party is submitting to "Chloeification", fairly bog standard Conservatism with a nicer, smoother face. Chris Paul on the other hand, is unsure whether Heffer is being used by Coulson or whether he doesn't mean it, doing the same thing as those who complained that Blair wasn't a socialist, hence nothing to be scared of: if the high priest of Thatcherism says that Cameron isn't a Tory, then there's nothing to be scared of, right? Unconnected but related was Geoffrey Wheatcroft on Monday who thought there something wrong with these Tories, which Jamie says means we're going to have more of a succession next year than an election.

The Blair comparison is apposite, because as Jamie also quotes, we know full well that many of the highest Cameroons, and the other architects of "change" within the Conservatives also deeply admired Blair. They admired him because he won elections, because he wasn't beholden to his party, and because for a time he meant all things to all people. He was Teflon Tony. They even adored his wars, and still do to an extent, especially the true believers like Michael Gove, who share what you can either call his neo-conservative leanings, or his "liberal interventionism", which in the case of both Afghanistan and Iraq was nothing of the sort. The Labour party became so desperate, so the orthodoxy goes, that it turned to someone who was never a natural Labour politician to lead them to victory. The Conservatives, also desperate for victory, have equally turned to someone, who although has an unimpeachable Tory background, doesn't have the natural Tory face, who can do the compassion which Thatcher never had, and who isn't (yet) a laughing stock as John Major became.

As Dave Osler points out though, the Toryism which Simon Heffer yearns for only came into existence in the late 70s, being constantly built upon during the 80s. Whether you call it Thatcherism, Reaganonomics, neo-liberalism, the belief in supply-side economics and the associated trickle down theory, this was what truly made the break from the One Nation Toryism which the post-war party had up till then espoused. The real success of Thatcherism etc is that everyone in the West has pretty much adopted it, or at least the economic side of it. Even now that the ultimate conclusion to Thatcherism has been reached, with the worst recession since the great depression, and when those bastions of neo-liberalism, the banks, have had to be bailed out and either nationalised or nationalised in all but name, all still worship it, as the feeble attempts at reforming regulation shows.

We should however be clear that there was an almost Faustian pact between New Labour and the City. The banks and the hyper-economy provided the tax revenues which overwhelmingly funded the surge in spending on the NHS and education, as well as the sly, feeble attempts at redistribution that made some headway, then failed. Business could do business with Labour, and in return they funded their spending, even if they complained and tried every trick in the book at avoiding the taxman as much as they could. At the last election this philosophy had triumphed so successfully that the Tories were quibbling about amounts of money that Boris Johnson would describe as "chicken-feed". It was on other things, such as immigration and crime on which they was something resembling a difference between the two parties, although doubtless if Michael Howard had won there may well have been a drift from the manifesto, written by someone called David Cameron.

Now we're faced with much the same situation but in reverse. Whoever wins, cuts will have to be made, it's just where and how deep that the argument is over, even if Gordon Brown and others try to deny it. The Tories' promise that both health and international aid will be protected, with possibly education and maybe defence also joining the party. The other promises made were that inheritance tax would be raised from its current threshold to £1 million, and that marriage would be recognised in the tax system, helping to fix our "broken society", but even those now look uncertain, with Cameron maintaining it might well be difficult to achieve. Both of those things are naturally Conservative policies which the left would and should oppose, especially the former when inheritance tax ought to be one of the weapons used in bringing down the deficit. Dave Osler notes that the "Chloe" generation of New Tories tend to defend the NHS in its current state, and there's little to suggest otherwise from a survey the Guardian conducted with 66 prospective candidates in September last year, although it's slightly out of date due to the economic crisis then not being fully developed. What is noticeable though is their social Conservatism: while it has always been Labour that has led social liberalisation, whether it be on abortion, the legalisation of homosexuality etc, the Conservatives have come to accept the changes over time.

What exactly are we facing then, come next June perhaps? To begin with, there probably won't be much difference. They might, as suggested, have an emergency budget with 40 days and bring in cuts quicker than Labour would. What does begin to chill the blood however though is the promise of "austerity", as used by George Osborne, which only brings echoes of the post-war years and the early 50s. Why it should chill is because you know full well that Osborne and Cameron will not be those experiencing their "austerity", just as they have never experienced it before. Secretly, it's difficult not to feel that the Tories are gleeful at getting the opportunity to take a sword to public spending. Like with New Labour, they're unlikely to really hammer away for the first couple of years, but after that it's anyone's guess as to what they'll do, let alone if they get a second term. On crime and law and order, Chris Grayling's recent "nick their sim card and bike" gimmickry reminded everyone of New Labour's similar ideas which were derided. With welfare, they've promised much the same as Labour's plans again, except with bells on. We shouldn't imagine that we're going to return to Victorian values or back to basics, but what we are going to experience is new Blairism, as argued before. The Labour party was there to try to contain Blair's worst excesses, even if it failed miserably most of the time. With Cameron, and with a media already licking its lips in anticipation at the Tories returning, there will be no constraints upon Cameron. With Blair, we had an "ethical" foreign policy, a sop to "wets" like Robin Cook. William Hague has already made clear that they intend to return to realpolitik, and relegate human rights somewhat in their dealings with the likes of the Saudis and China, and with Liam Fox and Michael Gove in tow, it's difficult not to imagine that neo-conservatism proper won't rear its ugly head. We've already seen that Cameron has joined up with homophobes from Poland and other assorted oddballs in the European parliament; if that doesn't embarrass him, what will?

Heffer then is wrong. Cameron and his party will be Conservatives, but then we've had much the same under Brown and Blair. Cameron and co will just turn everything up a notch. It probably won't please the hardline Tory faithful, but they'll get used to it, just as Labour supporters hoping for a turn left did. The challenge will be for the left to create a truly alternative vision, which does offer a difference, something which for now is nowhere in sight, even as the best opportunity ever to make the case for it has appeared and also now seemingly, disappeared just as quickly.

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I recall Heffer being described once as the "Tory Arthur Scargill".

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