Not weak enough

Will Davies is cross with David Cameron:

he seems to have invented his own more radical way of by-passing politics. His mantra is to introduce ‘a new approach’. Where Blair can claim the ghost of Keir Hardie and the strategic acumen of McKinseys, Cameron has adopted a view from nowhere at all. All he wants is a ‘new approach’, which could potentially exclude everything we’ve ever thought was politics, from policies, to media interviews, to empirical consensus on social problems. Asked whether his commitment to the environment might lead him towards policies to cut air travel, Cameron answered that this would not be the right ‘approach’ to the problem. Not only does this keep his policies hidden, it obscures a priori questions as to what the hell he’s doing in public life. Is he even a politician at all?

I think this is perceptive, but also risks misunderstanding and underestimating Cameron’s approach. Firstly and most fundamentally, Cameron’s a Conservative – meaning that he’ll do, say or think whatever it takes to get the Conservative Party into power. The last few Conservative leaders have assumed that they needed to replace ideologically-driven Thatcherism either with more of the same or with a more traditional version of ideological Conservatism (cf. Howard’s flirtation with Powellism). Cameron seems to have realised that there’s a deeper vein of Conservatism that’s not ideologically-driven at all.

Secondly and relatedly, Cameron’s oriented towards politics as culture and philosophy rather than project – which is to say, he’s oriented towards Labour’s weak spot. Even a baggy, miscellaneous, sacred-cow-free Conservatism is likely to have more internal coherence than New Labour. New Labour’s coherence is all in the project – an intransigently future-oriented project which draws much of its power from its continual attacks on the party’s own culture and philosophy. The justification for this approach was that it would take the party on a forced march into the terrain of middle-Englander common sense. But there are two ironies here. One is that this terrain is, if anything, even more alien to New Labour’s managerialists than the party’s own despised culture; witness Mandelson’s ghastly attempts to evoke grassroots patriotism at the 1997 election, flag, bulldog and all. There was always a danger that the party wouldn’t know the promised land when they saw it, in other words. The second irony is that the forced march was never going to stop there in any case: to change metaphors, once you’ve started throwing the floorboards into the furnace it’s hard to stop the train. In other words, the very coherence of New Labour as a project is rapidly taking the party into areas where it loses any possible coherence as a culture – and loses touch with that very ‘middle England’ for whose sake the whole exercise was supposedly undertaken. Cameron’s refusal to champion any kind of unifying project is a timely and appropriate response. If I were a Labour MP in a pre-1997 Tory seat – and plenty of them are – I’d find Cameron’s nebulous ‘approach’ extremely worrying.

Thirdly, we are not in a pre-election period (although sometimes it’s easy to forget). Cameron’s main priority now is to oppose effectively – and, given the problems the New Labour project is already creating for the Labour Party, the most effective way he can oppose Labour is by supporting Blair, just as Baldwin supported MacDonald (or the rope the hanged man).

Cameron’s an idiot – and a Tory idiot, at that – but I think for the Conservatives his ‘approach’ makes a lot of sense. By rallying apolitical Tories and ex-Tories, by exploiting the contradictions of the New Labour project and by driving a wedge between Blair and his party, Cameron’s got the chance to do New Labour a great deal of damage in the next couple of years. As I said earlier, at this stage in the game that’s all they deserve.

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