David Cameron: A blank slate
The Tory Party’s new leader has risen to the top by not saying much about anything.
At 3pm today, it is expected that David Cameron will become the new leader of the Conservative Party, trouncing his rival David Davis in the ballot of Tory Party members.
Many claim that the 39-year-old MP will turn the tide of the party’s ebbing fortunes. He’s billed as a ‘young, ambitious, radical, modernising force’ who will apparently transform the rusting machine that is today’s Tory Party. He will connect with young people, bring donors’ money flooding in, and make the party electable again.
This is largely mood music. Cameron is a fresh face who has some get-up-and-go and can talk to TV cameras. Other than that, what does he stand for? Throughout the leadership campaign he made a virtue out of saying as little as possible – whether the subject was tax policy or his personal drug use. Indeed, perhaps this is the source of his appeal: he is a blank slate, on to which people can read what they will. Policies divide, but everybody can sign up to a fresh face.
Cameron seems to have mastered Blair’s habit of saying something that sounds good but, when you think about it, doesn’t actually mean anything. Take this for platitudes: ‘Today the quality of life matters’ because people ‘want Britain to be a civilised place to live’ (1). Yesterday he said that engaging the party with the young was ‘one of the biggest changes I want to make’. He wants public services that better address ordinary people’s needs, and believes that people should help one another because there is ‘a we and not just a me’.
Another of Cameron’s selling points is his distance from old-style politics. He has been in parliament for just four years – which makes Blair look like an old hand for taking over the reins of the Labour Party after 11 years as an MP. Yet young pup Cameron’s lack of experience is often seen as a virtue, as if time in politics would only sully him. He has played this up. As a panellist on Question Time he made the case for a ‘private life before politics’, which won him a round of applause. He recently said that he wasn’t interested in ‘Punch and Judy politics’ – ‘I just won’t play that game’ (2).
Cameron has left little trace in the course of his meteoric rise. His first parliamentary position of note was that of shadow minister in the Privy Council Office in June 2003, then only a year later he was in the shadow cabinet as head of policy coordination (3) (his comment on this was ‘Gulp. Daunting stuff’). He’s young, everybody says – he hasn’t yet had time to do much. But the guy isn’t five years old; he’s nearly 40, and has been working around the Tory Party as an adviser since 1988. That is ample time to have made your mark.
But much of the discussion about Cameron isn’t about his politics at all, but about his lifestyle. Opinion is divided on the question of whether he is the leader of the future. In his favour: he lives in Notting Hill and goes to vaguely trendy places (his victory party is planned for the young artsy haunt, the Institute of Contemporary Arts). On the other hand, critics point out that he is an old Etonian married to an aristocrat – and, it now turns out, has Royal blood. But as Suzanne Moore notes in his defence in the Mail on Sunday, ‘his life has not been entirely smooth as he has a severely disabled child’.
One thing that marks Cameron out from both Davis and recent Tory leaders is his effort to distance himself from the Tory right. He hasn’t played the crime’n’punishment or anti-Europe cards, and has instead indicated that he wants to challenge Blair on his own turf.
His likely election therefore marks a new step for the Tory Party, signalling that the party realises it has to change. But more than that, the election signals the party’s desperation – falling for the first fresh face that comes along and believing that he will solve everything. A new Tory Party report has revealed that the party’s grassroots are in a state of collapse (4). The report notes that most constituency associations exist ‘on paper but not in practice’, and the majority of real members are in receipt of their old age pensions.
The mood around Cameron is good for now, but even Cameron supporters are worried that the bubble will pop after he’s savaged by Blair at prime minister’s questions, or makes his first gaff. Keeping your policies a secret and playing the anti-politics card are hardly strategies for government.
(1) Quoted in ‘Mr Punch has to hit home’, Observer, 4 December 2005
(2) Cameron promises end to ‘Punch and Judy politics’, Scotsman, 6 December 2005
(3) Contender: David Cameron, BBC News, 29 September 2005
(4) ‘Tory Party faces meltdown as its grassroots troops desert or die’, The Times (London), 5 December 2005