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Tuesday, July 31, 2007 

Wither the Tories?

There's a joke somewhere about David Cameron giving a typically specious speech on school discipline (solution: send 'em out to the voluntary sector) at the same time as some members of his own party are doing the equivalent of shouting out without putting their hands up first and then talking over the teacher, but I'm not sure I know what it is.

There are two conclusions you can come to about why the Tories, after having led in the polls by various margins for over a year, at one point even coming ahead of Labour when asked how they rated the parties on the NHS, are now once again flatlining. The first is that this is just a trough, with Brown getting the expected bounce everyone always thought he would, and that once Brown has been in the job for longer than a month, the Tories will once again find themselves gaining on Labour. After all, the local council elections, discounting the two by-election results in two safe Labour seats, showed that the party was getting back towards the support it needed in order to win the next general election. Factor into this that up until some of the recent reports on policy which Cameron ordered when he became leader that the party had almost no discernible, concrete policies whatsoever, apart from mutterings about the environment and understanding young people more, and things look even better. Once the party finally gets into the minutiae of what it proposes, the gap will lengthen ever further.

The second is that the first is bunkum. The problem, despite all the scandals, cock-ups and outrages of last year wasn't Labour itself: it was simply the tosser who was still prime minister. It was Blair's vanity, his attempt to hang on no matter how much damage it did to his party, that was what the public really objected most to. Despite Gordon Brown being next door for 10 years, having personal involvement of much of what went wrong, the man who signed the cheques that made the Iraq war possible, the lack of a contest within the Labour party over his ascent, and all the attempts by the Tories to smear him as the past and the "roadblock to reform", a change at the top was all that was needed. There are still tough times to come, but David Cameron is now no longer the "new man". If anything, he's now a reminder of all of Blair's worst qualities, defined by the image of him cycling into Westminster while a car carrying his documents follows behind him.

The reality, as it always seems to be, is most likely somewhere in between the two. The Cameron bubble has most certainly burst: the murmurings against him from within the Tory ranks were always there, but while they were ahead in the polls and seemingly back on top, most were reasonably content. Cameron's mistake was in starting to think that he was bigger than the party itself: putting the party down as "Cameron's Conservatives" in the Ealing Southall by-election was a ploy which horribly backfired, making Dave seem like a self-aggrandising narcissist who had single-handedly turned the corner for the party. Selecting Tony Lit as the candidate, hoping that a somewhat well-known telegenic local would bring in the votes needed was the kind of short-sighted stunt which deservedly also came back and bit him in the ass, after those photos emerged and details of a donation to Labour came out. More damaging and hurtful to the party's activists was the grammar school fiasco: whether it was an attempt to create a clause 4 moment, or something which the top brass felt that would appeal to the average voter who overwhelmingly disapproves of grammar schooling and selection, they ought to have realised this was the equivalent of poking a napping rottweiler in the eye with a pointy stick, and the resulting savaging could have been foreseen.

While these are all legitimate grievances as it were, the continuing dissent seems more of the petulant variety than that which is terminal. The hand-over of power has gone better than expected for Labour and the Tories' attempts to try and unnerve Brown have failed, but to get rid of Cameron now or to lurch back to the right would be an act of sheer lunacy, panicking at the very first hurdle. The last two elections have shown that they can no longer win simply by being harder on immigration, crime and Europe and the same economically as Labour when there's little to separate the parties on everything else. The problem with this is that there are already two parties on the centre/centre-right ground; leaving not just traditional Tory voters but also most of the left essentially disenfranchised.

Cameron's solution has been to try to pander to both those sympathetically liberal with his emphasis on the environment and toning down of the rhetoric on crime, as well as a rediscovering of the libertarianism the party was founded on in response to terrorism, while moving back towards the right socially, advocating marriage, talking of a broken society and now demanding that discipline be re-established in schools. While some of the latter is designed to appeal to the Daily Mail set, and he's got the response he was hoping for, it's that well, first no one believes him on the environment, and the socially conservative stuff looks to everyone else as the same old back to basics nonsense about bashing the single mum and lauding the family that neither works any longer or is likely to bring over the floating voter. Some of the other demands about what Cameron should be doing are similarly daft: Graham Brady, who resigned from the shadow cabinet over the grammar school mistake said that Cameron should be focusing "on a grittier, more relevant message to the inner city communities worried about crime". That's all well and good, but those same people are still never going to vote Tory, whatever he says about their fears.

It may all come down to just how much the Tories want to win. However much some of us may dislike it, Blair won thanks to the hatred and boredom which 18 years of Tory government had brought, the sheer desire for power at any cost by those who emerged after the death of John Smith, and finally, by shafting the left and making a pact with the Murdoch press. He didn't need to continue with the radical centrism once he and New Labour was securely in power, but everyone had underestimated just how much he had actually meant what he said. The nightmare for the Tory grassroots, and indeed, many others, is that the Tory urge become inexorable, but that Cameron too means what he says. He might have written the 2005 Tory manifesto, but everything suggests that he really does want to be the heir to Blair. When Brown calls the next election for may well turn out to be the real defining moment.

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