‘Want liberalism? Vote Lib Dem.’

by Stephen Tall on March 25, 2007

‘Cheer Churchill, vote Labour’ has always struck me as one of the great political advertising slogans, perfectly capturing the 1945 mood with cunning generosity of spirit.

It’s ripe for re-interpretation in today’s triangulated political times, as David Cameron silkily steals the liberal vocabulary to shore up his touchy-feely brand. Mr Cameron has successfully mesmerised the media into believing the Tories are changing, and his own party into believing they already have.

The wider public is rather more sceptical of this Tory about-turn than the media portrays, and a little more interestedly curious than I as a Lib Dem would like.

Ming Campbell’s latest attack on the Tories seems to me, therefore, to be rather well-judged because, like all the best attacks, it is rooted in reality:

Political parties are more than their leaders and if the Conservative Party aspires to liberalism, Mr Cameron must convince his members of it. He must ensure that they are ready to leave behind the baggage of Europhobia, homophobia, and xenophobia. Not just in policy, but in language and instinct too. The evidence suggests that he has some way to go to achieve that.

Sir Menzies is allowing for the possibility that Mr Cameron is, as he claims when wooing Lib Dems, a liberal conservative. As a party which believes in rehabilitation we must allow for damascene conversions, accept that the author of the Tory Party’s 2005 manifesto, who is and always has been a Conservative to the core of his being, is now ready to walk the liberal talk.

The question must be, therefore: is his party up for the challenge? It is one thing to laud Mr Cameron when he’s riding relatively high in the polls; quite another to stick with him when the going gets tough, as it surely will once the Labour leadership has – eventually – sorted itself out.

Most Tory members and activists are, undoubtedly, quite content with Mr Cameron’s presentational leadership. They understand he’s doing what had to be done to detoxify the Tory Party. But do they believe in, let alone like, his Blair-lite policy platform?

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

First, the membership: ConservativeHome may not be wholly representative of the views of all Tory members, but it is (I suspect) much closer to the membership’s centre of gravity than Mr Cameron’s utterings would have you believe. And it is not for no reason it has earned the nickname, ContinuityIDS.

Secondly, the elected representatives: and here – whether it is Patrick Mercer sounding off about ethnic minorities in the armed forces, or Tory peers defying the party line on Lord reform and sexual orientation discrimination – the lesson is clear: “when the Conservative Parliamentary Party doesn’t agree with Cameron, it simply ignores him”, as James Graham pithily puts it.

So what slogan should the Lib Dems adopt to encapsulate this distinction between Mr Cameron’s avowed liberalism, and the Tory Party’s disavowal of liberalism? I’m not sure we should go so far as to cheer Mr Cameron on. After all, at least Mr Churchill had once been a Liberal. Perhaps, then, we can settle for something wholly positive:

‘Want liberalism? Vote Lib Dem.’

And in so doing, we should recognise not only the challenge it poses to Mr Cameron, but also to our own party.