A lurch to the right? More like drift into desperation

by Stephen Tall on September 4, 2007

Has David Cameron fallen into his last three predecessors’ trap – start off promising to be a fluffy moderniser, end up losing as a shrill reactionary? That’s the charge from both the Lib Dems and Labour in the wake of Mr Cameron’s recent focus on the so-called core-vote issues of crime, Europe and immigration.

In some ways, it’s a fair point. But I think it underestimates the partial success of Mr Cameron’s 18-month re-branding exercise, at least in ensuring most voters give the Tory leader a fair hearing. I’m not sure the public will stigmatise him all that quickly simply for re-hashing Middle England’s cri de coeur that there are too many yobs, the EU’s gone too far, and immigration is “too high”.

The bigger danger for Mr Cameron is this charge, levelled by Andrew Rawnsley in his column in the Observer last Sunday:

What might seem like balance to a Tory strategist can come over as just confusing to voters. If it is not a lurch to the right, then it is a lurch all over the place. This is partly because, as Mr Cameron’s various policy commissions report, they are producing contradictory and sometimes diametrically opposed recommendations. The environment group wants a freeze on all airport building and higher taxes on flying; only the other week, the John Redwood policy group was arguing for a massive expansion in airports. David Cameron had better decide – and quickly – how he wants to be defined in the public mind.

Ironically, a similar example of Tory muddle-think appeared the same day, penned by Mr Cameron himself in the Sunday Telegraph. The Tory leader was setting out what he sees as the party’s principles for education policy. See if you can spot the join:

[Look at] Labour’s methods: obsessive micro-management and rigid attachment to old-fashioned ideas has entrenched deprivation, shut doors and closed minds. … We will make sure that children are taught using the right methods, so they get the basics in place from the start, develop a passion for learning and are able to grapple with tougher subjects. That is why we campaigned so hard for the re-introduction of synthetic phonics as the best way of teaching reading. And to ensure we stretch the brightest pupils and support those who need extra help, we want to see teaching by ability in every school. We will also look carefully at our policy group’s idea of giving pupils who are falling behind at the age of 11 the chance to catch up and reach the right standard in the basics.

Yes, that’s right! Mr Cameron is so opposed to political meddling, and so keen on parental choice that he’s confining his involvement to prescribing from Whitehall the methods by which kids are taught; the groups in which they’re taught; and whether kids can repeat a year. Heaven help us if he starts feeling didactic. Of course, all the ideas he floats have merit. But such matters of detailed policy should be left to parents and schools to sort out.

And that exemplifies the real problem for Mr Cameron and his party. The so-called ‘lurch to the right’ is irrelevant, except presentationally. After all, the Tory party hasn’t changed one jot in the last two years – they’re still in exactly the same place they’ve always been: hostile to foreigners, minorities, reform, progress and nuance.

For a while – when the going was good, and the polls were high – Mr Cameron was allowed to orbit the party, to reach for the skies, and to let sunshine have its day. But now darkness has set in, and the Tories are fed up with their leader mooning around, being totally eclipsed by the Prime Minister.

So what is Mr Cameron left to do? The only thing he can do – spout some right-wing rhetoric for his partys benefit while producing unimaginative and confused policies he hopes no-one will notice too much. And then rely on the public being so bored with Labour’s grip on power they’ll vote out Gordon Brown regardless.

But it won’t work. Tory members have seen what Tony Blair did to the Labour party, and they don’t want it to happen to their party: sure, there were three election victories, but the soul of the party was ripped inside out in the process. Quite simply, they don’t trust their ‘heir to Blair’ not to sideline the right-wing just as Mr Blair neutered his party’s left-wing. They would prefer pure defeat to sullied triumph.

This fear – that Mr Cameron will sacrifice Tory ideology in puruit of a Tory victory – was the driving force behind Michael Ancram’s rather extraordinarily-timed attack on his leadership in today’s Telegraph, which, the former deputy leader of the Tory party (2001-05) alleged, lacks “an overall sense of vision and direction and a clear projection of what it stands for”.

Mr Ancram’s article is a rather delicious throwback – “We believe above all in the resolute defence of our sovereignty and our realm” – descending into the customary obsessive rant about Europe, and “this wretched treaty”. The 13th Marquess of Lothian will, I suspect, have earned few friends among his Parliamentary colleagues for once again putting undisciplined Tory feuding centre-stage. But what he’s said is as true a statement of what he and most Tory party members truly care about as you could wish to read.

It’s the kind of statement which loses elections, as Mr Cameron knows full well. But, really, it’s the only message the Tory party wants to hear. And nothing Mr Cameron’s done since he became leader has done anything to alter that fact.

The Tory leader’s only option in the circumstances is to muddle through as best he can. But if the Tories are this divided in opposition, just imagine what would happen if they found themselves in government, and actually had to exercise some responsibility?