Wake up, the Tories are telling us something
The crisis of leadership is not the preserve of the Conservative Party.
You are not really interested in the Conservative Party leadership contest; I am not really interested in the Conservative Party leadership contest; nobody outside the somewhat alien environment of Planet Tory is very interested in the Conservative Party leadership contest.
But it is still worth turning our telescopes briefly in that direction. Not because it matters which candidate ultimately wins the ‘beauty contest’ between unattractive men, but because the Tories’ problems in finding a capable leader say something about the wider crisis of leadership in society.
The coincidence of former Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s eightieth birthday celebrations this week cast a long shadow over the Tory leadership contest, highlighting the credibility gap between the ‘Iron Lady’ of the 1980s and the comparatively plastic-looking contenders of today. The Tories have been searching for a leader who could give them direction ever since Thatcher fell from power 15 years ago; indeed, they have been effectively leaderless longer than that, since Thatcher was kicked out by her party in November 1990 because she had already lost her way.
The problem of leadership is not reducible to one of personalities. Failed Tory leaders such as John Major and Iain Duncan Smith might have been grey men with little going for them. But political parties tend to get the leaders they deserve. These leaders pretty accurately reflected the grey political mush that British Conservatism had become by the end of the twentieth century – a century, it is worth recalling, through which the Tory Party reigned supreme in British political life.
The big question that the Tories have been unable to answer satisfactorily over the past 15 years is not merely who should head the Conservative Party, but where should the party be heading. What does it stand for, what is its purpose beyond getting elected, what sort of society does it wish to create and preside over? In short, why should there be a Tory Party for anybody to lead in the first place?
The current leadership contest brings these issues into the open, through the hollowness of the ‘alternative’ visions offered by the leading candidates. Take, in particular, the case of David Cameron, the rising star of the Tory Party on whom many are pinning their hopes for a Conservative resurgence. What does he have to offer? Can anybody name a single significant policy or issue on which Cameron has won a reputation or laid down a marker during his years in politics? What exactly has he ever stood for apart from election, and of course the obligatory, empty mantra of ‘change’?
All one seems to hear about Cameron, from supporters and critics alike, is that he is very young, which apparently means that he is either an energetic new broom or a wet-behind-the-ears whippersnapper, depending on your point of view. But come on, the man is almost 40 years old. That might qualify as boyish in the world of Westminster. But it seems plenty old enough for any ambitious leader to have put his stamp on some political positions and issues, and made an impact on public debate by now.
In the past, political figures have won reputations for their intellectual or campaigning contributions even before entering parliament. And while opposition politicians might lack power in Westminster, they have often been able to influence debates or at least establish their own credentials long before gaining office. Gordon Brown’s speeches began to reshape the arguments on the British economy when he was Labour’s shadow chancellor under the last Conservative government. And even Tony Blair, for many the epitome of post-ideological, style-over-substance politics, managed to carve out a clear niche for himself as shadow home secretary – remember ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ and all that?
By contrast, in public political terms Cameron the younger has apparently risen without trace. Former Tory MP and leading political commentator Matthew Parris noted perceptively this week how both supporters and opponents seem to agree that ‘the whole idea of Mr Cameron is rather revolutionary’ (1). (Parris himself, a Cameron supporter, disagrees with this view of his man.) Note that it is ‘the idea of Mr Cameron’ they imagine to be ‘rather revolutionary’, as opposed to any actual ideas that Mr Cameron might have in his head or his speeches. It seems somewhat fitting that the great controversy surrounding his bid for the leadership should focus on what he will not say – ie, whether he took some drugs at university shock horror – rather than anything he has said.
If Cameron is considered the most dynamic or even ‘revolutionary’ of the candidates for the Tory Party leadership, that must speak volumes about the rest of them. Take the problems of David Davis, the shadow home secretary who came into the contest as overwhelming favourite. Davis suddenly saw his stock plunge dramatically last week, during the Tory Party conference. Why? Because he made one deathly boring speech. Not a speech that sparked a dangerous political controversy, or raised issues that people violently disagreed with. Simply a speech that said nothing and said it poorly.
Davis is hardly the first politician to put people to sleep from a party conference platform. A dull speech is not normally considered a death sentence. His problem is that he has nothing to fall back on – no political base of substance, no coherent constituency supporting his worldview, what ever that might be. When politics is reduced to image, so that a supposed heavyweight such as Davis can seriously imagine getting girls to wear ‘DD for me’ t-shirts at a Tory conference is a winning formula, then you had better get the image right (2). Davis didn’t, and he didn’t have anything else to offer. Even if he does go on to win the leadership contest, his pathetic campaign reveals what we should expect.
These problems of leadership are not peculiar to the Tory Party, of course. As we have often discussed on spiked, New Labour is almost defined by standing for nothing in terms of a vision of society. Tony Blair is the master of the art of presentation that Cameron aspires to perfect and that Davis hopelessly fluffs. But behind Blair’s statesmanlike image, the Labour Party has no more substance than the Tories as a force for clear political leadership. If the Emperor has no clothes, imagine the state of those who cling on to his invisible coattails.
This crisis of leadership is not about personalities, polished PR images or fluffed lines. It is the embarrassing public face of an entire political class that has lost its bearings, and lacks any real sense of its mission or purpose today. It is also representative of a society that fears the future and has lost faith in its own achievements. Without any sense of how we might start moving forwards, all that we can expect in the way of new leadership is Brown taking up just where Blair leaves off, or Cameron being hailed as revolutionary simply for being a few years younger than the rest. In these circumstances, the more that they talk about change, the more things will remain in a state of political stasis.
It is perfectly reasonable for anybody not to be interested in the outcome of the Conservative leadership contest. But the way that it illustrates the lack of contestation over big issues, the rudderless drift of public debate, and the vacuousness of even the most dynamic-looking leaders today should concern us all.
We need some new leaders. The trouble for the Tories, New Labour and the rest is not just that we don’t recognise who their candidates are. We do not have a clue what they are supposed to be, either.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked
Tory Party: change the record, by Brendan O’Neill
Where have all the political parties gone?, by Mick Hume
(1) Three cheers for David Cameron, the Willie Whitelaw of his generation, Matthew Parris, Spectator, 15 October 2005
(2) A robot in the headlights, Melissa Kite and Patrick Hennessy, Daily Telegraph, 9 October 2005
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