Before the bubble bursts

by Stephen Tall on October 2, 2006

Tim Hames concludes his article in today’s Times with a thought-provoking question:

… Mr Cameron is much more Clark Kent than Superman. The serious danger for him this week in Bournemouth and beyond is excess expectations. Once Tories no longer believe that their man can fly, will they remain inclined to follow him?

The Tory leader-cum-wunderkind has enjoyed a spectacular year, having risen without trace. His newsworthiness has been derived less from what he has said, than from what he has not said.

Taxes, immigration and Europe have been banned from the Conservative Party’s (public) lexicon. They have been replaced by buzzwords such as sharing, rehabilitation and inclusiveness. Simply by confounding our expectations, Mr Cameron has exceeded our expectations.

The media has given Young Dave a pretty easy ride, thrilled that – for the first time since 1992 – British politics has once again become genuinely competitive. But the first chink in the armour has been on display at this week’s Bournemouth conference.

Mr Cameron’s warm words and fuzzy blandishments are receiving shorter and shorter shrift. You cannot read a profile of the Tory leader without the question – ‘Where’s the beef?’ – being asked by interviewers searching for a glimpse into what a future Tory government might do. And hoping for a slightly more concrete answer than, ‘Good stuff’.

It’s because the first year as leader is generally your easiest, your most popular, that it is the one time when you can do (pretty much) what you want. This is especially true of Mr Cameron, who has earned the talismanic devotion of the Tory membership for looking and sounding electable.

Which is why I have always thought it a mistake for him to defer setting out his policy stall. Because it’s not going to get any easier.

In fact, as we have seen at today’s conference – with Norman Tebbit’s clarion call for lower taxes and withdrawal from the EU – the policy vacuum Mr Cameron has created is allowing the Tory right to gain even more traction within the Conservative party. And they can scarcely be accused of disloyalty when there are no policies for them to betray.

The danger for Mr Cameron is that – if the wind changes – his position will become vulnerable. Like a market bubble, Mr Cameron’s stock has increased in value solely on the basis of investors’ belief in future returns. If those returns begin to look risky the bottom could very quickly fall out of the market.

Fair’s fair: he’s earned some capital in the last year. Now’s the time to start spending it.