The Tories' Dance of Death
NB: This piece was originally written last weekend and was due to be published in the Boar last Tuesday. However, due to difficulties with our new printers the issue actually didn’t appear till Thursday. For form’s sake i don’t publish any Boar articles on my blog till they’ve appeared in print. Given the febrile state of British politics it has dated quickly but parts of it still apply.
Listening to David Cameron at last year’s Conservative conference, I was reminded of what was once said of the speeches of dud US President Warren Harding, “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea”. This week at Blackpool, after a blitz of policy reports, Cameron is left with a mass of ideas in search of a manifesto.
As for the threat of an early election, dangling like the sword of Damocles, for all the ‘bring it on’ posturing we’ll see, privately the Tories are not just rattled, but terrified. Their hopes that Brown would turn to the left or flounder in a crisis have been shown up as empty. He has deftly managed the balancing act of cancelling out the negatives of the Blair era, without discrediting the governments he served in.
For now Cameron must avoid making things worse. The charge of a lurch to the right has gained ground after a summer that saw the unholy trinity of Europe, tax cuts and immigration creeping back. The party may describe this more modestly as a “rebalancing” but they have still taken leave of the insights that first elevated Cameron.
When George Osborne asserts that the conference will focus on the core issues of marriage, tax and crime, he does more than just remind the electorate of Tory past. He panders to the hope amongst the right, and the fear amongst others, that Cameron’s early reforms were born of superficial electoral consideration, rather than principled choice.
In a key passage on tax in last year’s speech, Cameron asserted, “I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back. Well they’re not coming back. We’re not going back.” This pledge was undermined by the pollution of John Redwood’s report, which even the greenery of Zac Goldsmith’s could not offset. Moreover, following Osborne’s opening shots, it is now clear that the contradictions thrown up by the raft of reviews- Goldsmith’s called for a moratorium on airport expansion, Redwood’s hailed their growth- will be resolved in the right’s favour.
The mantra that economic stability comes before tax cuts increasingly appears a fig leaf. Why allow an unreconstructed Thatcherite like Redwood off the leash? The answer seems clear; while Cameron may force his party to eat the meat of economic competence, he has now winked at the pudding of tax cuts further down the menu.Where once he declared that the measure of future policy would be how it aided, “the disadvantaged in society, not the rich”, he now flirts with rolling back inheritance tax- paid by only 6 per cent of estates.
The belief that core issues can be welcomed back as old friends, as long as they are paired up with new ground on public services and the environment, overestimates the degree to which brand Tory has been cleansed. Even when polling opinion ran in Cameron’s favour, those polled still maintained that his party hadn’t changed. They weren’t wrong.
A much-overlooked Populus survey reveals the chasm that continues to separate Tory MPs from others on social affairs. Less than half would create something like the NHS if designing a health service from scratch. While 94 per cent of Labour MPs agree that greater tolerance of different cultures would improve Britain, only 67 per cent of Conservatives concur. Where 83 per cent of Labour MPs and 92 per cent of Lib Dems, believe that that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexuals, just 46 per cent of Tories do. And so, like a necrophiliac cult Tory MPs continue to lust after dead policies.
Cameron’s contortions are symptomatic of the wider difficulty of defining what it means to be a conservative in the twenty-first century. He is yet to find a coherent narrative. His dystopian “broken society” rhetoric, sits uneasily with his previous cry to “let sunshine win the day”.
It is ironic that Osborne should now position the party as “successors of the Thatcher inheritance.” It was her market forces which unleashed the atomising trends that undercut Burke’s “little platoons”, and dampened the bonds of church, queen and country. Thatcher’s legacy was a wasteland for British conservatism.
Cameron surely still has enough nous to prepare a far more centrist manifesto than the last three leaders. Yet he cannot twin these moves with oxygen masks for the decrepit right. The old tunes only lead the Tory party to its own danse macabre.
Published in the Warwick Boar, 02/10/07