Blair’s other legacy: the Un-Tory Non-Party

Some lessons of the grammar school debacle for the state of post-Blair politics.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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In Britain, David Cameron’s Conservatives have been busy lately claiming that they are the true inheritors of Tony Blair’s New Labour reforms, trying to contrast their new centre ground approach with the old-fashioned ‘left-wing’ rhetoric of the contenders for Labour’s deputy leadership.

Recent events certainly confirm that Cameron’s Conservative relaunch has much in common with Blair’s New Labour project, but not in the way it is commonly understood.

Take the ‘no-we-don’t/yes-we-do’ debacle over whether or not the Conservative Party supports new grammar schools. It suggests that Cameron has ‘inherited’ Blair’s no-party politics of the personal clique, and his principles-lite approach to politics.

It also, however, shows that Cameron’s one-man band still lacks the personal authority Blair had a decade ago, when he forced through his symbolic dumping of Clause Four, the Labour Party’s traditional totemic commitment to the redistribution of wealth. By contrast, Cameron’s shambolic attempt to tear up his party’s symbolic commitment to grammar schools, a ‘bold move’ which he had to step back from within days, left him looking rather more like the late Blair of recent years, isolated in his bunker. A show is never as good if you try to do the same act as somebody else.

As New Labour might just as well have been called Not Labour, so Cameron is seeking self-consciously to position his new Conservatives as the Not-Tory Party. In this sense, singling out the grammar schools issue for a clean break with the past was about far more that education policy. The relatively few state secondary schools that still select pupils by ability are neither the problem nor the solution in that complex sphere.

The point is that grammar schools have become a totem of Toryism over the past decade (before that, we might recall, Conservative governments did much to help abolish the grammar system). Just as public opposition to the clusters of grammars that remain in a few English counties became a pathetic last-gasp symbol for the Labour left, so championing the grammars became an equally empty symbol of right-wing Conservatism.

Cameron’s change of policy, announcing that the Conservatives would open no new grammar schools, was thus a declaration of war on his party’s own recent political heritage. It was designed to make clear that he is not a clone of Margaret Thatcher, and certainly not of Michael Howard. So he denounced as ‘delusional’ what was until recently seen as commonsense in Tory circles. Cameron has been widely reported as searching for a ‘Clause 4 moment’ that would demonstrate to the public that the new Conservatives are something more than the NoNot’s (the Not Norman Tebbits). He hoped the grammar school issue would pass that test.

If this episode confirmed the Conservatives as un-Tories, however, it also showed that Cameron’s outfit is a non-party. For Blair the rump of the Labour Party has always been unwanted baggage, to be tolerated at election time but otherwise largely ignored. Cameron clearly sees ‘his’ empty shell of a party in a similar light. The change of policy on grammars was foisted on the party membership via a shadow cabinet meeting which Cameron did not even bother to attend.

It has since become clear that Cameron appointed his powerful new spin doctor, the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, over the heads of such insignificant figures as the party chairman and the head of campaigning. Conservatives insist that Coulson will not be an Alastair Campbell figure, and it does indeed seem unlikely that he will have Campbell’s skills. But his appointment confirms that, so far as public image and campaigning are concerned, the Conservatives are now far less a political party than a professional PR campaign for a celebrity statesman.

Cameron has now warned the Conservatives that, despite the setback over grammar schools, he will not ‘flinch’ in making further changes necessary to make him electable. That is a statement that in future he will be talking to the public (by which politicians nowadays mean the media) rather than to the party – similar to the warning which Blair’s other heir, Gordon Brown, gave to the Labour deputy contenders last week.

The chaos which ensued around the grammar school policy was also, in an unplanned way, an indication of how much the Conservatives are now a one-man band. After one Conservative frontbencher was sacked for publicly disagreeing with the new policy, another announced that new grammar schools would in fact be built in his Buckinghamshire constituency, because they already had some and so were excluded from the ban. Nobody now knew what Conservative policy really was – and nobody had the authority to sort it out. Cameron was locked away up north, posing as a classroom assistant in a two-day stunt, and his key adviser Steve Hilton was also away. Without them to address the media, there was nobody in control of Conservative policy. It was like New Labour when Blair went on holiday and left John Prescott ‘in charge’ of the country. Except it wasn’t the quiet summer holidays, and the party was trying to launch a major new policy.

Yet despite the absence of any serious rivals in the Conservative hierarchy, Cameron managed to mess it up. In the face of grumbling from a few almost-invisible frontbenchers, and protests from local councillors in areas with grammar schools, the leader made a partial backdown, agreeing that some new grammar schools could be built in those counties, and claiming that this had been the policy all along. Despite such protestations, it was widely seen as an embarrassingly swift policy u-turn (or perhaps more like a complex figure-of-eight turn). Cameron succeeded in not looking like Thatcher, though not perhaps in the way he had hoped, as cartoonists contrasted her famous ‘the lady’s not for turning’ resolution with this apparent ‘the laddie is for turning’ softness.

In the wider scheme of things, the grammar school policy is of far less significance to the tradition of Toryism than Clause 4 was to the history of the Labour Party. Yet Cameron failed properly to impose his will on it. It looks as if he picked a fight with a totem pole, and lost (or at best got a dishonourable draw). Partly, no doubt, that was because he picked on a symbol that actually matters to the lives of an important section of Tory voters; the existence of some successful grammar schools amid a generally poor state education system is a big part of the reason why Conservatives can still get elected in places like Kent and Yorkshire.

It is now clear that Cameron follows Blair in one other important respect: he is equally out of touch with the lives and aspirations of many people in the real world. How typical of today’s political leader to be stuck up in Hull pretending to be a teaching assistant, to show the media you are a man of the people, while your party is in crisis over a policy mess that reveals how out of touch you are with your voters. Little wonder that the schoolchildren Cameron was posing with revealed that they had no idea what the Conservative Party might be, and could not guess its name even when he filled in most of the letters for them on the board.

The grammar school carry-on has dented Cameron’s opinion poll ratings as a strong leader. That shows how shallow his support is, how easily swayed and unloyal the electorate is in today’s world of no-party politics, how votes are now not-so-easy come, but easy go. There is little in the way of a reliable core vote or a loyal party activist base for any leader. Of course, by the same token, Cameron’s rating might swing back up soon. But if his project has suffered a setback so early over such a fringe issue, what might happen to his lightweight brigade when the real pressure of a political struggle is on?

At the moment Cameron is – and I never thought I would hear myself use this label – looking rather like ‘Blair-lite’, a diet version with even more of the body removed. What would a contest between Blair’s competing heirs, Cameron and Brown, possibly be about? This is the sort of historically narrow ‘choice’ our democracy offers when an entire political class is so lacking in purpose and so far removed from the lives of the majority of the population.

It is hard to imagine either of them sweeping to victory in a General Election right now. It is rather easier to imagine what a charade post-Blair politics might be reduced to after either of them has been prime minister for a few years. Time for some serious thinking about political alternatives, before the ‘Bring back Blair and Prescott!’ bandwagon gets rolling.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked
Nathalie Rothschild commented on David Cameron’s ‘policy of behaviour’. Mick Hume analysed the losers in the May local elections. Neil Davenport discussed David Cameron’s brush with drugs and asked why he was apologising for old Tory policy. Or read more at spiked-issue Politics.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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