Later today, David Cameron will lead the Tory Party in a rousing chorus of "Cum-By-Ya" - or hum some equally intellectually substantial mood-music - and the press will moisten and cheer at the creation of this electable new brand of Tory Lite. In the midst of a conference, where Cameron's most substantial commitment so far has been a radical pro-sunshine policy ("Let the sunshine win!" he called on Sunday), it is easy to forget the inches of real difference that lie between our main political parties.
Here's one. In a few days, the British minimum wage rises by 30p an hour. It doesn't sound like much - roughly the cost of a pint of milk - but to more than a million people, it will add up to a wage increase of £625 a year. When you earn just £11,000, that's the difference between your kids getting to go on holiday this summer or not. Just over a year ago, David Cameron vehemently opposed this increase, along with the massed blue ranks of the Tories who will cheer him today. Even now, he is silent about whether he supports Labour's inflation-beating increases.
If you look through the trickle of Tory policy papers under Cameron - and yes, I really am that sad - you will find dozens of pin-pricks like this in the bright bouncy castle he is trying to coax us all into. In the very week he was urging the British public to "hug a hoodie", Cameron voted against the Government's allocation of hard cash to build more youth clubs where these real, non-symbolic hoodies could stay out of trouble.
He then dismissed the very programme designed to stop kids sinking into hoodiedom, SureStart, as "a microcosm of government failure". While Cameron's public face was eager to show he is concerned about marginalised kids, his hard policies showed that it was merely a PR stunt. Calling for a hug costs nothing and means nothing. Calling for cash for youth clubs and SureStart centres does.
Or look at Cameron's most rousing tune - concern about global warming. He has focused almost all his rhetoric on encouraging people to make voluntary changes in their private lifestyles, like shifting your electricity bill to a renewable supplier. I'm in favour of those changes too, but politicians are in a position actually to force us to change, through legislation. On that, Cameron has conspicuously failed. In his very first speech as Tory party leader last year, he said Britain needed not mandatory cutbacks on planes and cars but the opposite: "a concerted programme of road-building", a guarantee of soaring emissions and rising CO 2. (Incredibly, yesterday, the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne told this newspaper, "We're not committed to any road-building programme I know of." Either Osborne doesn't read Cameron's speeches, or Cameron's pledges simply melt into air).
Used properly, political symbols can be a simple, distilled way to communicate change. Look at Tony Blair's ditching of Clause Four. In itself, it was meaningless - nobody took the clause's nationalise-everything logic seriously - but it did indicate a genuine evolution. Cameron's symbols, by contrast, are not designed to draw attention to his parties' policies, but to distract from them. Hug a hoodie but cut government support for them; hug a husky, but build more roads; express a special concern for the disabled, but ignore the fact you vote to deny flexitime to parents of disabled kids; call for your party to "stand up to big business" but fly to India to open a factory for one of your party's billionaire funders.
There have been some genuine shifts under Cameron. He is not a homophobe, or prone to Tebbit-style immigrant-thrashing. This is more a generational shift than a political one, but he still deserves some credit for leaving the shores of the ugliest social conservatism. The rest of his metamorphosis, however, is more suspect. At the Progress Conference in London recently, Michael Portillo talked about his lengthy meetings with Cameron, and was asked what had made Cameron change so drastically. "It's entirely about a desire for power, obviously," he said. He's right. This is not a philosophical shift. It is a tactical shift. Beneath the warm rhetoric, there is a man we all need to know more about.
David Cameron is a child of extreme privilege who got his first job in the Conservative Research Department because one of the Queen's equerries intervened on his behalf. As Robin Harris, who first employed Cameron back in 1988, puts it: "He applied, but there were no spaces. Then we received a call from a royal equerry wanting to know why he had not been hired." "Dave" had called in his royal contacts.
The fact he has benefited from inherited privilege informs Cameron's politics. He has indicated he would slash inheritance tax, even though it is only paid by the richest 6 per cent - people like Cameron's family and friends. This is where he wants the cash saved from "waste" like SureStart to go. He is so out of touch that he even refers to this tiny sliver of the super-rich as "ordinary tax-payers". They will receive another boost if Cameron introduces the "flatter" taxes he eulogises - code for less progressive taxation, where the rich get a fat tax cut.
After his royal appointment, Cameron went on to work as special advisor to Norman Lamont - hardly a man noted for his commitment to environmentalism or tackling poverty. In his autobiography, he describes Cameron as "a brilliant Old Etonian with a taste for the good life", and alludes to how he loyally advised him to drag Britain over an economic cliff on Black Wednesday.
After this disaster, Cameron went to work as a corporate spin-doctor for Carlton Communications - his only non-political job. One financial journalist who worked closely with him, Ian King, echoes the consensus among hacks who knew him: "He was a smarmy bully who loved humiliating people, including a colleague at ITV, who he would abuse publicly as 'Bunter' just because the poor bloke was a few pounds overweight ... He was a poisonous, slippery individual."
Occasionally Cameron's carefully-crafted More-Liberal-Than-Thou mask slips. A few months ago, he was asked by The Spectator if he really believes in small government. "Just ask John Redwood," he said. This is the equivalent of Tony Blair being asked in 1995 if he really believes in socialism, and responding, "Just ask Tony Benn."
Later today, David Cameron will no doubt deliver a lovely speech laden with empathy and moral passion. There are two ways to interpret this. Either a man who has dedicated his life to spin-doctoring for corporations and researching for hard-right MPs has travelled the shortest road to Damascus ever - and nobody told his close advisor Michael "entirely about a desire for power" Portillo, or the people who draft his policies. Or maybe we are being sold a sweet, slick, slathering of spin.
If you are thinking of flirting with David Cameron, why not ask a minimum-wage worker if they're prepared to risk it?Reuse content