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David Cameron: dreaming a new generation of conservative dreams

By Corin McCarthy - posted Wednesday, 26 October 2005

Recently David Davis (Tory leadership candidate) claimed he would make Britain's Tories walk tall and give them credibility and respectability. Unfortunately for Davis another contender David Cameron is the man who has delivered. In the space of a few months, the 38-year-old Cameron has transformed his leadership bid from wanna-be to favourite. Cameron has engendered a youthful optimism in Tory politics for the first time since Blair forced the Tories out and made new Labour to fit with the times and become the natural party of government.

Cameron appears as a breath of fresh air, a blank canvass, a young family man, a charismatic speaker. Indeed some Tory grandees have said he's their best orator for some time, a man fit to challenge Blair at the set piece speech. It's claimed he's the first Tory in years who attracts rather than repels support, a leader who has people listening.

So how much of this is true? How much is spin from the Cameron camp? And how would a Cameron opposition match up to the Blair government?


First, Cameron must become the leader, which is still to be decided between him and Davis, in a ballot of all Conservative party members. The result of which is still six weeks of campaigning away. However a recent YouGov poll of Tory members had Cameron's support running well ahead of Davis at 59 per cent and there is a tide of support for his camp. Michael Portillo, the strongest voice for modernisation of the Tory party, says, "The six week campaign is silly, even cruel. Cameron has reached parts of the electorate that no Tory has tickled for years. If the Conservative Party rejected him now it would be treated with contempt ... I feel sorry for Davis ... if he did win by some accident, his victory would be hailed as a catastrophe."

Portillo's view is formed through his own politics and experience, and the Tory party has had a history of overlooking the obvious candidate towards the more reactionary Euro-sceptic, socially conservative wing of the party. The coronation of William Hague over Ken Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith over Ken Clarke and Michael Portillo attest to a Tory party gripped by ideologues and geriatrics, still reliving the miners' dispute and railing about countryside issues (fox hunting) as the key to good Conservative government. The priorities, tone and background of the Tories seem to come from another era, one where Churchill is still able to whisper advice from the backbench to the young'un Macmillan.

In other words the Tory party (its brand, membership and history) has been the problem for them electorally as Labour's strict ideology was corrosive for their chances in the 1980s. Labour had a difficult modernisation task that Blair undertook with relish. The Tories are now faced with a similar job. If Cameron has painted this picture it has not been through anything he has said: he hasn't had to. Anybody living in the United Kingdom knows that Cameron is the candidate of change and Davis is the candidate for the status quo.

It's an unfortunate role for Davis who has made the policy lead throughout, putting lower taxes at the heart of the Tory message, market involvement in public services, and a firm commitment to the special relationship with the United States and a commitment to take back some powers from the EU Commission. Now you may ask what Cameron has done on policy? The answer is that he has not said much but his rhetoric has been first class: notably defined by the vague cry “let's dream a new generation of Conservative dreams”.

To be fair Cameron has laid out a manifesto that could have been written by new Labour, if only they were able to ditch Gordon Brown and Brown's chilly view of "public sector" reform and incessant commitments to centralisation, and bureaucratic control. Indeed Cameron has trumped Davis in his appeal as the moderate centre-ground candidate. His role in British politics has been helped by the commitment of Tony Blair to not run again and he appears the natural heir despite the party divide. Cameron can offer the best of new Labour's public sector reforms, point out that Gordon Brown is standing in the road and commit himself to being capable of delivering.

Cameron's appeal as a Tory candidate, at least over Davis is that at 38 (as opposed to 56), he can have two shots at the crown: assuming Labour win in 2009, which is still mostly likely, with them holding 366 seats to 198 seats. Cameron can point to this deficit and claim the Tories need more than an electoral make-over, pointing out that as a party they are close in 40 marginal seats. This means that the numbers overemphasise the dominance of this Blair term, but still make a Conservative victory reliant on finding a larger pool of voters using a centrist message. Furthermore, a Guardian/ICM poll that asked floating voters who they would prefer as prime minister - David Cameron or Gordon Brown - found Cameron leading 48 per cent to 33 per cent.


So Cameron has been effective in product placement, and has captured a sentiment for change. And what's more, Blair's effective pronouncements for public service reform, yet failure to deliver (with the National Health Service in particular), provide fertile intellectual ground in a likely battle with Gordon Brown.

A probable casualty of Cameron’s ascendancy is the Liberal Democrats, who have paraded as "the second party of British politics", but proved at the last election what a gross disappointment they are. As Iraq leaves the stage as an electoral issue, as the Labour party re-brand to the left under Gordon Brown, and the Tories to the centre-right under Cameron, the Liberal Democrats will have no clothes, no position and no hope of advancement. The Liberal Democrats have passed up a chance in a generation to be relevant and will no doubt slip back into obscurity as the 2009 election becomes a contest again. Many Labour voters had protested by voting Liberal Democrat in 2005, but will not commit such indulgences if the Tories can win.

The question mark over Cameron is whether he can hack the pressure or will he be a British version of Mark Latham, by becoming an initial branding success, but a long-term failure on policy. Where the two differ is Latham took Labor in Australia away from the centre-ground of politics, did not have widespread backing in the ALP, and as shown in his bio-diaries had an overt ability for crude undignified behaviour. Where Cameron is different is he is a moderate, with good oratory, and has backing in the party from grandees such as Ken Clarke, John Major, Michael Howard, Michael Portillo and others.

A question mark hangs over Cameron regarding his ability to withstand the heat of the House of Commons and the election campaign, but this can only be answered by his performance. The biggest question mark is the Conservative Party itself. For if Cameron is to dream a new generation of Conservative dreams, he is still going to have to reform the Tory party and bring it into the centre-ground and away from its reactionary right wing. Is he up to it?

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About the Author

Corin McCarthy was an adviser in opposition and government to Craig Emerson MP. He also advised Labor’s 2007 election campaign on small business issues. He has written widely on these issues in The Australian and On Line Opinion. He currently works as a lawyer in London advising on major infrastructure projects. These views are his own.

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