“Cameron 3, Blair 1” proclaimed the triumphalist headline of the Evening Standard in Wednesday’s evening edition, referring to David Cameron’s performance at his first Prime Minister’s Questions as the Leader of the Opposition. This rather optimistic and wildly misleading assessment was the latest instalment of what has thus far been a blinkered and repetitive discourse on the implications for British politics of David Cameron’s selection as leader of the Conservative Party.
The very first thing that must be said is that the comparisons with Tony Blair are somewhat lazy, and do not bear close examination. Mr Cameron is a man from the corporate world who has decided to enter into public life and become a politician, and he has brought with him his alleged charisma and presentation skills from that particular realm. By contrast Mr Blair, though he may be many other things besides, is fundamentally a political creature, and his presentation skills have their roots in his training in the legal profession. The significance of this distinction ought to become clear enough in the coming months, as Mr Cameron deals with the demands of front-line political life.
In terms of Conservative policy, the significance of the fact of Mr Cameron’s leadership is precisely nil. Mr Blair’s accession to the Labour leadership in 1994 was mirrored by a continuation of the re-branding of the Labour party, begun in the early 1980s under Neil Kinnock, into a party sufficiently Thatcherite in its politics to obtain the support of influential media barons as a means to electoral success; Mr Blair’s saccharine personality was just a component of that package. There is no equivalence to Mr Cameron’s situation; what microscopic traces of substance could be detected either in his Parliamentary or media performances suggest little more than the standard traditionalist, free-market, anti-gay fare we have not unreasonably come to expect. Which is no bad thing – a scramble for the middle ground is the very last thing this country needs, and yet the mainstream media are determined to assert that such a scramble is taking place, when it patently is not.
Perhaps the reason that so many commentators have reached this conclusion is because it makes better copy than the rather mundane, depressing truth; that the selection by the Conservatives of David Cameron as their new leader is only remotely significant in this one respect: that it is another step in the decline of our political culture along the lines of what is euphemistically called “personality politics”. We are not entering an era of Continental-style “consensus” politics – the media, and backbenchers on both sides of the House of Commons, will see to it that the adversarial nature of our politics survives. The truth is far worse than that; we are now somewhere between Heat magazine and the politics of the United States of America, where two parties – one far to the right and one even further to the right – contest elections in which style, sheen and charisma weigh far more heavily than principles and substance. This is what happens when politicians solemnly promise to take “the politics” out of politics, purportedly in order to make it more relevant to people’s lives. The Conservatives, in belatedly catching up with New Labour in this respect, may well have sentenced us all to another decade of this sort of politics.
[i] This article appeared in the Morning Star newspaper, December 9th 2005 [/i]