Monday 12 April 2010
Bruce Anderson: It's Cameron's authenticity that could prove decisive
His vision is not quite as dramatic as the Tamworth Manifesto – but it’s not far off
The Tories won the first week. On the National Insurance tax, Labour was pinned on the defensive. As always when this government is under fire, ministers started lying. We were told that by cutting National Insurance Contributions (NICS), the Tories would take six billion pounds out of the economy. Really? You prevent an additional tax on employees and a raid on struggling firms' balance sheets. This is taking money out of the economy? Such a claim could only be made by desperate politicians hoping that they are addressing a dumbed-down electorate.
So Mr Cameron's team enjoyed themselves. But the polls did not move. There are two explanations for this. The first is that the voters have made up their minds. The second is that they are still expressing their pre-election instincts, and that the campaign could change everything. Everyone I have spoken to who is fighting a seat insists that there are large numbers of don't knows, many of whom could turn into won't votes.
The political class has always found it hard to interpret the uncertainties of the sovereign people. This time, the task is no easier, partly because the populace, quite wrongly, now thinks that it is entitled to despise the politicians, most of whom have been working hard on their constituents' behalf. It is also worth remembering that the French won the preliminary battles, before the final confrontation at Waterloo.
So what is going to happen? We will know a lot more after the first debate on Thursday. At one stage, the Tories had high hopes of that encounter. Allow the voters to see Gordon Brown as he really is, and the battle would be won. But the Prime Minister has survived Andrew Rawnsley's revelations and his Cabinet colleagues' chronic and serial disloyalty.
We also know that Mr Brown is listening to his advisers. Peter Mandelson is in charge of prepping him for Thursday evening. The concept of the joke has been explained to Gordon Brown – so often that he has understood it, and the necessity to tell a couple. He is even ready to be self-deprecating. There is no indignity that this man will not endure to give himself a chance of winning. He may be a sociopath. He is not stupid.
This worries the Tories. At present, David Cameron's lead over Gordon Brown is much larger than the Tories' lead over Labour. Even if the PM has not thrown a mobile phone at them, most people have taken his measure. But suppose the debates allow him to come across as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, an awkward character, but real, in a way that a young public-school boy never could be? Might Mr Brown begin to throw off his negatives?
In their entire electoral strategy, the Tories have taken a risk. Modern Toryism is a coalition between hope and anger. Go round the Tory think-tanks, and you will find lots of bright youngsters determined to solve social problems through welfare reform and educational reform. In modern British politics, Toryism is the last refuge of the idealist. The think-tank kids will tell you that Margaret Thatcher used freedom to create the great economy. David Cameron, Michael Gove and others will now use freedom to create the Big Society.
These rising hopes of modern and flexible Toryism are sincere in their commitment to eradicating poverty, moral and financial. In an uncharacteristically cynical moment, the Conservative historian John Vincent once said that all the intellectual disputes in contemporary Toryism came down to the length of the chain that would bind the slaves to the oar. The Tories who are driving on their parties' social programme would no more endorse that than they would oppose the Great Reform Bill.
So far, so idealistic: so inspiring. No one who is seriously interested in solving social problems should dream of voting anything except Conservative. But idealism has demographic limits. There are a lot of people out there who are less interested in solving social problems than in keeping them at bay. Mr Cameron's Tory party has not yet convinced them that it understands their fears and their anger. Before Waterloo, Wellington almost cocked it up. He came close to allowing Napoleon to drive a wedge between him and Blucher's Prussians. David Cameron has come dangerously close to a wedge between anger and hope.
No recent Tory leader would ever have fought an election without leaning heavily on crime, immigration and Europe. The Cameroons would instantly retort that no recent Tory leader has fought an election with any prospect of winning it. Even so, David Cameron has to harness a troublesome coalition. Those whom he has enthused with his vision of the Big Society have little in common with those who are still in mourning for the stable society of their younger days.
That is the BNP vote and the UKIP vote. It is also the vote of those who are giving up on life: people who may think of themselves as Tories, but who are merely nihilists. But despairing former Tories who either refuse to vote or join up with the loonies could cost the party a number of marginal seats.
No thoughtful Tory could contemplate the decades since the Second World war without an occasional irruption of nihilism. There was the loss of Empire, much of it condemned by independence to corruption and anarchy. There was also post-war socialism and trade union dominance, locking Britain into low growth rates and economic stagnation. Then there was unrestricted immigration, abetted by liberal policies on crime. Finally, there was the attack on old-fashioned educational values, by left-wingers bent on the cultural humiliation of the decent majority. It is easy to understand the despair of all those who felt that their world had been lost.
David Cameron understands those feelings, but only intellectually. This is what makes him such an exciting and unpredictable Conservative. He is determined to fuse traditional Toryism with modern Britain. Two years after the 1832 Reform Bill, when Toryism was easy to caricature as the irrelevant illusions of reactionary desperadoes, Robert Peel published the Tamworth Manifesto, which ended the war with Parliamentary reform. Suddenly, Toryism was relevant again. Seven years later, Peel had a Parliamentary majority.
Tomorrow Mr Cameron publishes his Manifesto. It will not be as dramatic as the 1834 version. But its objectives are similar: a reassertion of British values in modern circumstances. Mr Cameron will be saying that if anyone believes in Britain, the family, hard work and common sense, they should vote for him, irrespective of their class, their creed or their colour. It is a strongly-argued message and a deeply-felt one.
Will it work? It needs to, for it is the only strong and positive message on offer at this election. Can anyone who believes in this country seriously contemplate more years of Gordon Brown? But according to the latest polls, around one-third of the electorate might actually vote Labour. David Cameron is still the salesman on the doorstep, trying to persuade an unconvinced householder.
To seal the business, he will have to find a way of harmonising those disparate themes. That should not be hard. David Cameron has it in him to compose a powerful political symphony. He has big music in him. Assuming that he does become Prime Minister, it will be amusing to watch those who have underrated him coming gradually to their senses.
Mr Cameron has one further advantage. In order to avoid defeat, Gordon Brown will have to spend the next 25 days concealing his personality. To win, David Cameron will have to express his personality. That ought to be the easier task.
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