Bruce Anderson: There is method in Cameron's madness

Tories donÕt mind remaking the weather, but they donÕt understand why David wants to rain on them
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The Independent Online

A spectre is troubling the suburbs and the shires. A lot of Tories fear that there been a coup; that a group of ruthless young men has seized power and is determined to repudiate much of the party's recent history. They are right.

David Cameron came to an early and unshakeable conclusion. He decided that he only had a month to make an impact. He was certain that if he had taken a bit of time off, reassured himself that there were three years before the election and vaguely planned a couple of speeches for the early new year, it would all have been too late. Instead, he had to catch British politics off-balance and keep it there. He had to remake the political weather.

He has. No politician since Napoleon has had such a dramatic impact so quickly. Although the drama of the firework display does not guarantee sustained success, I do not believe that there is a single serious opposition politician or political commentator who regards David Cameron as a transient figure. Plenty of adversaries are determined to beat him, but they know that they have to take him seriously. They realise that they are dealing with a new political force.

That is what dismays some Tory supporters. They do not mind remaking the weather, but they do not understand why their new leader seems to want to rain on them. They wonder whether his new force has sufficient links with traditional Conservatism.

In one respect, their fears are groundless. David Cameron has plenty of old Tory instincts and prejudices. He likes the countryside, field sports and the Church of England. He reveres the Monarchy. He is at home with British history (Gordon Brown is only pretending).

There is one breach with the Toryism of earlier generations. Over the past few decades, an argument has developed between social authoritarians and libertarians. Usually, though not invariably, Mr Cameron sides with the libertarians. But anyone who claims that Tory libertarianism should be an oxymoron is ignoring the protean, evolutionary character of Tory thought and practice.

There is one recent Tory tradition which Mr Cameron is determined to discard: the tradition of unpopularity. Hence the Cameron coup. David Cameron is never arrogant. Nor is he un-arrogant. He is aware that he and his team have understood a truth which is still obscure to the great majority of Tory supporters: that the party has a grave popularity problem.

Tory unpopularity is the most interesting question in the past 40 years of British political history. Because of the left-wing bias of most political scientists it has been scandalously neglected by academics. The ordinary voter is easily deceived by the Tories' record of power for more than half those years, especially during the Thatcher era when they rescued the country. But political scientists have no excuse for failing to look behind the superficialities of the electoral process to examine the deeper movement of public opinion.

Yes, Margaret Thatcher won three elections, twice with three-figure majorities. But she only once, and then narrowly, exceeded the percentage with which Alec Douglas-Home lost the 1964 election. The British electoral system is good at transforming percentage pluralities into parliamentary majorities - and Mrs Thatcher was lucky. She won her first election comfortably, because Jim Callaghan delayed going to the country, allowing the Winter of Discontent to destroy his authority. Thereafter, she never faced an opposition leader who looked like a credible premier. She merely had to brush aside a jackanapes and a dunderhead - Messrs Foot and Kinnock - who were also be assailed by the SDP.

Margaret Thatcher's successes concealed her party's difficulties, which refute vulgar Marxism. As Britain grew steadily richer it might have been assumed that the voters would become steadily more Conservative. By the 1980s, all the political demographic indices appeared to be moving in the Tories' favour. Trade unionism and manual labour were in decline, while personal wealth, home ownership and middle-class aspirations were on the rise. If the vulgar Marxists were right, life should have been much easier for the Tories of the 1980s and 1990s than it was for Alec Home. But vulgar Marxists never understood the middle class.

The middle classes are the social grouping most prone to sophisticated economic anxiety. They have enough knowledge to aspire, but never enough money to realise their aspirations. Much of their life revolves around next month's bills. As their own status tends to depend on education, schools are a constant worry. Do they impoverish themselves by going private, or risk their children's future by putting up with the local comp?

The modern middle classes' horizons may be much broader than those of their 1950s predecessors, but many of them might swap all that for the job security of the age before globalisation. The middle class is often a vulnerable class.

From the hard-hearted perspective of garnering Tory votes, there was no need to worry about middle-class peace of mind, as long as the main threat to it came from Labour. For decades, Tory canvassers were able to make middle-class flesh creep, merely by quoting Labour's policy proposals. Then came Tony Blair, and the Labour Party stopped running its election campaigns as benefit matches for the Tories.

No longer menaced from below, the middle classes could allow themselves to feel snubbed from above. Over the past 40 years the social composition of the Tory party has radically altered, as the knights of the shire gave way to the esquires of the suburbs. Yet many middle-class voters still assume that all Tory politicians are too affluent to have to worry about grocery bills, mortgages or school fees.

In the summer of 2004, a Tory focus group was asked to draw a Labour politician and a Tory one. The Labour politician was portrayed as a slim man in a dark suit, talking into a mobile phone. The Tory politician was a fat man - almost like very fat man who watered the workers' beer - in green wellies.

That summarises the Tory party's problems. That is why David Cameron has pressed ahead with the rhetoric of change. There will be more later today, when he insists that he is committed to economic efficiency and social justice. He is determined to realign the Tory party with middle-class prosperity in a post-old Labour world.

At the last election, the Tories' slogan was: "Are You Thinking What We're Thinking". Mr Cameron's will be: "We Care About What You Care About."

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