Eton is not just a school, but a symbol. The very word has a strange effect on a lot of otherwise sensible people. It stops them thinking straight. Determined to assume that all Etonians are wimpish toffs, incapable of getting to grips with gritty reality, they disregard any evidence to the contrary.
Of that, there is no shortage. Henry VI, Eton's founder, was a pious and ineffectual weakling. But matters have moved on since the days of the College of St Mary at Eton, preparing poor scholars for celibacy and the priesthood. Without compromising academic standards, few schools are as effective at instilling worldly wisdom in their charges, not to mention toughness.
Ed Butler, a former commander of the SAS, more recently in charge of Helmand province, is an Old Etonian. So is his successor at the SAS, Mark Carleton-Smith. During his time as Defence Secretary, John Reid would have met both men. If he had paid more attention to what they told him, he would not have talked nonsense about the troops coming home from Afghanistan without firing a shot. But Dr Reid is not good at paying attention. Nor is it inconceivable that he would underrate an OE adviser.
He is now making a similar mistake about David Cameron (who is now on his way to Darfur). In one respect, this is surprising, in that it forces John Reid to break a longstanding habit. For the first time in years, he is in agreement with Gordon Brown. Both men refuse to accept that anyone with Mr Cameron's background might have to be taken seriously. Mr Brown and Dr Reid can no longer be described as socialists. But they still have enough socialist viscera to enjoy the nostalgic pleasures of class hatred. Neither is prepared to recognise that a Tory from Eton and Oxford could be a mortal threat. Neither of them has taken the trouble to understand what Mr Cameron is doing.
The first point to remember about the Tories under David Cameron is that nothing happens by accident. Over the past year, he has been pursuing a strategy bold enough to invite comparisons with George Bush and Iraq. When Mr Cameron became Tory leader, he had the option of containment. Concentrate on the core vote and the familiar themes; rely on them plus the Government's unpopularity to push the Tories back over 40 per cent.
David Cameron deliberately and ruthlessly rejected that approach. Instead he went for destabilisation. By kicking over the card table of British politics, he would compel the voters to reassess the Tory party. It was a risky plan. It involved upsetting a lot of traditional Tory supporters who could not understand what was happening and why their leader was failing to get stuck into the Government. But David Cameron has held to his course without a twinge of self-doubt.
Yet the old-fashioned Tories can relax a little. After a year, as he always intended, Mr Cameron is ready to move to phase two. From now on, there will be a gradual change of tone and emphasis. Starting with education and crime, the Tories will be propounding harder-edged policies. This will also highlight the Government's failures.
There will not be a total transformation. David Cameron has no intention of trying to outdo John Reid's snarling populism. Still determined to win the intellectual arguments, Mr Cameron has an increasingly exasperated contempt for Dr Reid's intellectual dishonesty. It sometimes seems as if every time a crime is committed, the Home Secretary will appear on television promising to pass a new law. David Cameron will point out that there are a fair few laws on the statute book already; what is needed is a lot more order.
Mr Cameron will also insist that there is no case for identity cards, which are merely a hugely expensive way of winning a few headlines. For a fraction of the cost, we could have a border police force, exploiting the natural defences of the English Channel and the North Sea to ensure that entry into the UK was properly regulated. Up to now, Mr Cameron has concentrated on establishing the moral basis for his brand of Toryism. In the future, we will hear more about the commonsense basis.
Gordon Brown and John Reid will counterattack. But they have a problem. David Cameron wants the premiership. So do both of them. It will not be easy for the two Labour rivals to unite in doing down the Tories when they are also desperate to advance their own ambitions.
Although there is the occasional grumbling from the odd Tory backbencher - "odd" often being the operative word - David Cameron does not have to watch his back. That is not true of Messrs Brown and Reid. They both have to keep half an eye on the other one's movements.
Even so, the Tories do not have an easy task. It is true that Dr Reid's cynicism and low-mindedness have upset some left-wing groups. But they tend to be thoughtful rather than numerous. John Reid will not mind antagonising the New Statesman as long as he holds on to The Sun. He will fight dirty.
He may not be the only one. Eton invented the Wall Game. Its rules are incomprehensible, but lead to a cross between coarse rugger and a First World War battle, in which the players are caked with mud. At school, David Cameron only played the game once. Though he did not go into politics to put that right, he will not flinch from a muddy scrap.Reuse content