Mr Cameron’s makeover success?

Six days before 2010 election and the beginning of a new age in British politics, can we claim Mr Cameron’s Makeover Politics a success or a failure?

David Cameron undoubtedly took a risk when he decided that the future of the Conservative party was to forget and even deny its history. True, all Tories can claim that they are pragmatist and not much more. So not being intellectual, not citing history, and generally giving the masses whatever they seem to want, is all thoroughly Conservative behaviour. Arguably, it is the heart of Conservative behaviour. Still, no Conservative politician has even been so breathtakingly cavalier in their approach.

Did it work? One can argue that when Mr Cameron embraced vapid centrism, he was doing a molecule-swap with the Lib-Dems and that Mr Clegg returned the complement. Using the gift of TV, Mr Clegg made himself indistinguishable from Mr Cameron. The centre ground suddenly looked very spacious and very crowded. Mr Blair suddenly had two political heirs, not one.

One can say that Mr Cameron’s approach courted a middling victory as a middling party. This was better, he thought, than going hammer and tongs for a full-blooded Tory approach which might have courted solid defeat. 

I argued in my book that Mr Cameron was right to modernise and detoxify and to understand that there are very few moments when the Tory right is electable and this definitely wasn’t one of them. That meant that he had to risk the crowded centre.

Even so, I think he made a signal error.

Here’s where I differ from almost all the commentary I see. I think David Cameron could have looked much more solid and quite different to Nick Clegg if he had played to some very old and worthwhile Tory narratives. I believe that the country carries in its head three Tory tropes: “Nasty”, “Nice” and “Sensible”. It’s the last which Mr Cameron could have drawn on.

He had five years in which to play to themes of Conservative good government. One of them could have buried the Curse of Black Wednesday (Labour loved the ERM too and anyway the economy took off soon after the crisis). Another could have thumped Labour’s charge of “Tory boom and bust” (a cycle which had been sorted out by 1997). And so on.

My tricky point here is that one did not have to defend Thatcherism (or any other Tory prime minister) wholesale. There was indeed no harm in putting some distance between modern Toryism and Mrs T’s exceptional and ahistorical version of the creed.  But it was an important mistake to be so frightened of the party’s back story.

When Gordon Brown in televised debate charges Mr Cameron with being about to usher in recession and unemployment on  a scale of the Tory tragedies of the 1930s, 1980s and 1990s we are hearing an old Labour message which is rendered all the more powerful by Mr Cameron’s having abandoned the basic Tory message: “Yes, we’re tough. We have to be. We always have to come in and pick up your pieces.”

We’ll see. In a TLS piece which discusses my book amongst others (“Is there a leader in the House?”, 28 April 2010), Michael White of the Guardian, suggests that Mr Cameron may well have the chance to prove himself the kind of Tory I would like him to be, in Number 10. It’s true, and arguably all that matters.

I still think that Mr Cameron could have got more votes, and a better mandate to govern, if he had laid out a solider message. Indeed, I fear (as I argue elsewhere and at that his governing instincts may be as dangerously Blairite as his electoral instincts were.

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Publication date

30 April 2010