Bloodless on the conference floor
Just when we thought the knives were out for Tory leader David Cameron, talk of an election has rallied the troops - for now.
As all coups these days must be bloodless, the Conservative Party Conference seemed to be shaping up to be a rare jam-filled treat.
The media were gearing up for the Blackpool chainsaw massacre. This could be the end of the Tories, a Labour insider promised: ‘The talk about an early election is a gamble for us: if it focuses their minds, they may unify. But my money is on them thinking they have already lost, and starting to kick each other to death.’ A report in the top Tory magazine, the Spectator, suggested that conference attendance was up, with local Conservative association members arriving in their droves with sharpened scythes. ‘Hug a hoodie?’ (Take that.) ‘Heir to Blair?’ (Make my day, punk.) And so they came to Blackpool, blue rinsed dames from the Wirral, retired Majors from East Anglia, assorted marmalade makers of the WI with that ‘same macabre curiosity that led mediaeval villagers to a hanging’ (1).
But then all was a hush. Tory militants are as inconspicuous as monks in Burma.
On the first day, there was a shambles with the microphones. But still they kept quiet. And on the second day, they were rewarded by a speech that ‘electrified’ the conference. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, promised to raise the threshold for inheritance tax from £300,000 to £1million. The Times’ parliamentary sketch writer, Ann Treneman, described a great ‘whoosh’ sweeping across the hall, ‘like a fireball… “Yeah!” shouted the man behind me, as if at a football match. Even George Osborne looked shocked. He stood, stunned, having a myxomatosis moment as the wave hit him. Then his lips parted into something close to a smile.’
Of course, George Osborne never really smiles because his play-dough face isn’t capable of creasing, but has he really got a hold on things? And will the scythed-up Tory mass now go home (10 points behind or no), to troop out to the doorsteps and paint the town blue?
Since David Cameron took over as Conservative Party leader he has been doing his level best to appeal to everyone except his own party. With Blair-like oiliness, he skidded over various themes that looked nice without leaving much of a mark – praising Polly Toynbee, promising to be good to the environment, declaring that teenage delinquents were merely lacking in love – and pinning him down on detail as to what he was going to do about it was (as Boris Johnson said of Blair) ‘like pinning jelly to a wall’. When details were fleshed out it became pretty clear that putting up with a new green logo was quite different from paying a green tax at an out-of-town supermarket. The announcement of tax cuts (which will affect six per cent of the population) is just the most sane-sounding proposal in an increasingly out-of-kilter series of announcements presumably catered to the old guard.
In September, Cameron announced plans to create a new form of ‘national service’ for teenagers, ‘where young people would be paid a grant, understood to be around £500, for taking part in a six-week programme of community work, outdoor pursuits or even military training with the Marines’. ‘Mending our broken society’, Cameron declared, ‘should never just be about punishment and penalties. It should be about inspiration, making young people feel that British society is something they want to be part of.’ (2) In August, Cameron appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme and announced that when it comes to yob violence he was dropping his old Beatles record ‘All You Need is Love’ and blasting out some Sex Pistols. ‘We are not going to deal with anarchy in the UK unless we actually strengthen families and communities in the UK’, said Cameron, responding to the gunning down of the 11-year-old schoolboy Rhys Jones in Liverpool. But Cameron’s idea that we have a broken society, that we are suffering from ‘Anarchy in the UK’, seems to have been met by a cry of Never Mind the Bollocks.
His attempts to derail the nationwide spate of Brown-nosing were deemed inappropriate. His timing was bad. While Gordon was dealing with flooding, Dave was in Rwanda. While Gordon was dealing with foot-and-mouth, Dave was seen to be carping on the sidelines. Gordon shunted responsibility for Northern Rock onto his Chancellor, and Cameron’s squeals of protest seemed irrelevant. As early as July, The Spectator‘s front cover was asking ‘What if Cameron fell under a bus?’
Realising he wasn’t talking to wider society anymore, Cameron has retreated into the Conservative bosom. It seems only a matter of time before he releases election leaflets demanding to know if we’re thinking what he’s thinking. Or follows The Oldie‘s lead and appeals to common interests: ‘Do you have more than 10 dead people in your address book? Do you collect string?’ Is Anarchy in the UK? Vote Conservative!
But as Mick Hume pointed out on spiked, when a fresh faced Cameron was appointed the Tory messiah, the whole point of David Cameron is that he wasn’t a Conservative. ‘Cameron has energetically set about showing the public what he is not – ie, that he is not a racist or homophobe, or a free marketeer, or a rugged individualist, or an opponent of many New Labour reforms. That he is not Margaret Thatcher (“There is such a thing as society”) or any of the other four Tory leaders who have come after her. In short, in any terms that could be recognisable from the past decades of Tory politics, he is not a Conservative.’ (3)
So now that he’s had to turn back and suck up, what is he now? The answer, it seems, is nothing. Osborne may have rallied the troops, but as Max Hastings points out in the Guardian, ‘those who passionately applaud the speakers of today scarcely trouble to conceal their expectation that tomorrow the same heroes will occupy tumbrils rattling through the streets to kiss Madame Guillotine’. Eventually, we may get to see the blood-letting billed.
In the age of personality politics, Cameron has failed to find a constituency in the wider public. The Tories didn’t want an heir to Blair. So now, it would seem, they have the heir to Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard.
Mick Hume considered the Conservatives then and now and asked, ‘What would an autumn election be about?’. Rob Lyons analysed what David Cameron’s Ealing comedy told us about British politics. David Chandler discussed Cameron’s trip to Rwanda. Neil Davenport asked why Cameron spent so much time apologising for previous Tory policy. Or read more at: spiked issue British politics.
(1) This will be a make-or-break conference for the Tory leader, Fraser Nelson, The Spectator, 26 September 2007
(2) Teenage national service planned by Cameron, Daily Telegraph, 9 September 2007
(3) See David Cameron and the demise of Conservatism, by Mick Hume, 15 December 2005
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