Does anyone really think the Tories have changed?

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2009

There’s been much Westminster Village debate today surrounding Jenni Russell’s article in the Guardian arguing that there are only 10 genuine ‘Cameron progressives’ in the Tory party (Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome can only name 6) – both figures, by the way, include the Tory leader himself. This makes it all the more important, she argues, for all progressives to embrace the New Tories:

the most important political question we now face is how to influence the shape of the next Tory government, since it’s what we’re likely to be living under for five, or nine or even 14 years.

Fair enough, one might say: I’m all for political pluralism. But it’s a little hard to know what is actually meant by the erm ‘progressive’ when applied either to Mr Cameron or to the party which he leads. There was a practical example just last night, covered in excellent depth over at ‘Costigan Quist’s’ Himmelgarten Cafe, when Lib Dem MP David Howarth proposed a £50,000 cap on political donations. Costigan makes the point that, less than two years ago, the Tory leader backed just such a measure.

Yet last night, the Tories (and Labour) blocked the Lib Dem amendment, the principle of which they had previously supported, and which would have helped restore some element of public trust in party political funding. The Tories spokesman on the issue, Jonathan Djanogly, labelled it “unacceptable”, professing bemusement at the reason for setting the figure at £50,000, seemingly oblivious to his own leader’s previous support for it. Introducing his amendment, David Howarth noted with, I imagine, some wry mischief:

this particular proposal for a donation cap at around £50,000 gained support on all sides, so I would be astonished if it were opposed today by parties and politicians who previously supported it.

Of course, when it comes to party funding, and the attempts of the Tories and Labour to sound principled while refusing to change their ways, nothing should astonish us.

But it does bring me to the thought: when Jenni Russell talks of the Tories being led by a progressive elite orbiting Mr Cameron, can she point to specific examples where we see this being translated into progressive policies which we can confidently predict will be enacted by a future Tory government? Because I’m struggling to name them. It’s not just political funding; on the environment and civil liberties, too, it’s all too easy to trace the retreat of the few Tory progressives.

Tony Blair and his New Labour clique was able to transform the old Labour party because the left had come to recognise that their politics and policies had become out-moded. In short, the left was defiant but resigned. The same is not true of the Tory right: they believe they are on the right side of history, and they have no intention of being cowed by a handful of progressives. They may recognise the necessity of Mr Cameron’s marketing skills. But be in no doubt that it is the socially conservative and authoritarian right of the party which remains its authentic voice.