Dominic Lawson: The curse of the Bullingdon Club

There are a number of ways in which Cameron seeks to distance himself from the interests of the middle class which is so much part of the identity of the party he leads

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Oh dear, the curse of the Bullingdon Club strikes again. Photographs taken at the wedding last weekend of David Cameron's younger sister show the aspirant prime minister wearing "a business suit", surrounded by a number of other guests more properly attired. No prizes for working out that it wasn't absent-mindedness behind the Conservative leader's sartorial solecism: he just couldn't afford to be seen looking as he did in those now censored photographs of Oxford's Bullingdon Club, circa 1986.

Actually, that's not quite right. It would have done David Cameron no harm at all to be pictured in full morning suit – but he obviously didn't feel comfortable if even a subliminal echo of his youthful "upper-class" posturing filtered through to the electorate. His sensitivity is understandable. Gordon Brown, in the very Downing Street speech with which he launched the election campaign, spoke clunkily of what he termed his own "ordinary middle-class background"; the only purpose of this was to draw attention to the Tory leader's more exalted social origins, and presumably to hope to benefit from the contrast in the eyes of the electorate.

If David Cameron's twitchiness on this score manifested itself merely in the way he dresses down, this would be a matter of no political importance, especially as the vast majority of voters are not going to base their decision on 6 May on the differing social backgrounds of the leaders of the political parties. The more interesting question is whether David Cameron has been sufficiently spooked by this factor for it to have influenced his party's policies.

What we can certainly say is that he is, partly for this reason, genuinely far removed from the outlook of a Margaret Thatcher. She had not a trace of the class guilt which afflicted so many of her male Old Etonian colleagues. Having come from the modest home of a provincial high-street grocer, she identified completely with the striving middle classes and saw their interests as entirely congruent with the overall national interest; she had contempt for the emollience and compromising streak of those who never had to fight for their prosperity.

Thus her former advisor, the Foreign Office grandee Sir Anthony Parsons, recorded her saying: "Do you know, Tony, I am so glad that I don't belong to your class?" Parsons responded: "Which class would that be, Prime Minister?" and she shot back: "The upper middle class who can see everybody's point of view but have no view of their own." One can sense something of the same feeling in the murmurings among the Conservative Party's provincial grass roots, still, after almost five years with Cameron at their helm, not sure exactly what their smooth and graceful leader really believes in.

David Cameron would argue that he has stated his core belief clearly in the party's manifesto: "The Big Society". Yet even this is as much defined by what it isn't as by what it is: it is obviously meant to be seen as a rejection of the notorious remarkby Margaret Thatcher that "There is no such thing as society", and follows directly from Cameron's favourite political mantra that "There is such a thing as society; it is just not the same as the state."

There are other more concrete manifestations of the way in which Cameron seeks to distance himself from the interests of the striving middle class which is still so much part of the identity of the party he leads.

The Conservatives have abandoned their support of the grammar schools – and their shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove referred to the way in which "the sharp-elbowed middle-class parents colonise ... excellent [state] schools but those trapped in deprived areas do not." The broadcaster Libby Purves, though not herself a card-carrying Tory, must have been speaking for many who are, when she furiously responded: "How dare a Conservative MP criticise conscientious middle-income parents as 'colonists' and suggest that their 'sharp elbows' deliberately disable the poor? Is it wrong to do your best?" On the other hand, Mr Gove had the support of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) which declared that he had "commented correctly" on the "channelling of state education resources towards the petty bourgeoisie".

In one respect, this has nothing whatever to do with class guilt on the part of high-born Tories (that hardly describes Michael Gove, the fiercely intelligent adoptive son of an Aberdonian fish merchant), and everything to do with the Cameron team's bedazzlement by Tony Blair's patented election-winning method: thus they take for granted the votes of their own party's core supporters, and concentrate their blandishments on those who in the recent past have cast their votes elsewhere.

How successful this technique is for the Tories, we will know in a week and a half. The strange thing – at least from the point of view of the "flatter your enemies" theory – is that it is when the Cameron team has played to more traditional Tory themes that the opinion polls seem to respond most favourably. Thus when George Osborne pledged to remove inheritance tax from all estates up to £1m, the polls registered a high level of enthusiasm, so much so that a panicky Gordon Brown forced Alistair Darling to double the inheritance tax threshold for married couples to £600,000. Then, in the first week of the current general election campaign, the Tories seemed to score a palpable hit with their pledge not to implement a planned increase in national insurance tax, backed by the serried ranks of Britain's businessmen.

As the Economist magazine pointed out last month, "the middle class has had a worse time of it than is generally recognised". Labour have done much to support the least well-off, at least through the tax and benefits system, and have also been very good to the super-rich non domiciles: it is the "hard-working middle class" that have actually done least well out of government policies – however much Gordon Brown eulogises them in principle.

Yet, as the Economist went on to say: "Mr Cameron epitomises British elites: he understands his high-earning peers and feels a genuine noblesse oblige towards the poor, but the people in between seem somehow beyond his ken." Who knows, perhaps a part of the sudden surge of support for the Liberal Democrats is from exactly those "hard-working middle classes", who feel overtaxed by Labour and do not feel that David Cameron is truly on their side?

After all, the Lib Dem pledge to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000 and clobber the super-rich tax avoiders might be designed to help the least well-off, but the biggest beneficiaries (on the admittedly suspect assumption that the super-rich will hang around long enough to fund it) will be those closest to the median income. Most perplexingly of all for David Cameron, he finds that the political leader who has so entranced floating voters and who threatens to stymie a smooth transfer from Labour to Conservative, comes from a family even wealthier than his own; but then Nick Clegg never joined the Bullingdon Club.

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