The Conservative Leadership and What it Means for the Rest of Us

“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]

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3 Responses to The Conservative Leadership and What it Means for the Rest of Us

  1. Reuben says:

    Whilst we all know that there is an increasingly narrow gap between the two “largest” parties, in terms of both policy and presentation, I think you are missing the point, that what Cameron has is the ability to present a positive media image – not the relentless negativity of the last three elections and the Tories natural home in the Daily Mail. Corporate people know how to persuade people – it is exceptionally naive to presume that someone with a lax political background (not forgetting his little ERM experience) automatically doesn’t know how to win. This man is a threat!

    Already they have begun a rebrand – rejecting the title “New Conservatives” for “cameron’s conservatives” and going for an “inclusive” logo. This is dangerous stuff – politics should be about substance not style. People may well vote for the tories under Cameron as a “nice young man” not realising the social devastation his flat tax and anti-societal policies will bring. I don’t spend my weekends knocking on doors and delivering leaflets because it looks good – it’s about improving our community and making a real positive change to people’s lives. Just because some guy rides a bicycle and does his own shopping doesn’t make him the right man. Politics should be about communities.

    The problem is, however, persuading people (and the media!) that this MOR politics-lite is a load of rubbish and that actions speak louder than a loud tie. It will be disappointing if Cameron and Blair (and to a lesser extent Ken Livingstone – another “personality” politician) take us further down this path, but it is, as you rightly say, something that is likely to happen. People aren’t going to realise the trouble until we have allowed Osborne and Cameron to abolish the welfare state, let private companies run our services to the detriment of the local people (look at the state of education in Hackney and Islington for proof) and tax the hell out of the poor to shore up the rich.

    Our best hope is not to persuade tories to vote otherwise, but to galvanise the non voting 40% of the population to get off their backsides to vote in May- thus reducing the Tory/Blairite vote (of course only 45% of the population voted for them combined at the last election). Local elections are where people can have a real say – and begin the process of building grassroots support for Westminster.

    Evil DistroGood records for Bad people

  2. Nathaniel Mehr says:

    Reuben I am at a loss to work out where in the article I wrote that Mr Cameron is not a threat. The bulk of the article was concerned with evaluating the significance of his leadership, and in particular exposing the myth that Cameron’s media-friendly persona equates to a scramble for the political middle ground. His chances of long-term success were not a central issue in this piece.

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