The Tories lack “bottom”

The Tory leadership under David Cameron clearly lack something. Their followers don’t know what the party’s for. The Cameroons are a bit controlling. Blairite, then. But there’s something more…

I argued in my book, Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics, that the new Tories are unnecessarily scared of their own history. I argued that the Tories are useful to the country because they are authentic rather than attractive.

I should have gone into this a little more brutally. Labour has always had the luxury of being dissident and insurgent, and it was Blair’s genius to play on these themes whilst enhancing the party’s claim to be capable of governing.

David Cameron doesn’t have that sort of option, even as he seeks to emulate the Blairite approach to nearly everything. How do you reverse the Tories’ historic reputation for being good at government, except by making a fool of yourself?

The Cameroons have reached for all sorts of Californian and pseudo-hippy stuff about a post-bureaucratic state and localism. You can see what they’re doing: they are overturning any old Tory tropes in the hopes of seeming fresh.

That much I grasped early on.

I hadn’t properly explored a further problem. That Labour was inexperienced in 1997 didn’t really matter: their freshness trumped their weakness.

But the Tories, it seems to me, are paying a huge price for their having little experience whilst at the same time binning the idea of authentic, competent, Tory rule.

In short, the Tories cannot afford to be the party which is uninterested in “bottom” and doesn’t have any.

It did not matter to Labour in 1997 that it had no Big Beasts, but it does to the Tories now. Blair hung on an ancient Labour theme: the goal of compassion. Cameron has thrown out a very important Tory one: the inhertance of competence.

A whole generation of Tories is missing. Various accidents of history mean that men like Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley, William Waldegrave and Chris Patten (and plenty of others) are not in play.

This is a pity, but not a tragedy. It means that the Tories should have worked all the harder to show that they want to govern as fresh young people, but do so in charge of a revitalised state, including a refreshed Whitehall and Westminster.

I’m afraid the Cameroons have thrown away a huge chance to engage the electorate in a project of national reinvigoration. They may well pay for this by having a small electoral victory, and – worse – only a small chance of governing well.

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Publication date

27 February 2010