Matthew Norman: You'd have thought Cameron had learned from Blair's past

The message is that leadership by tiny clique, besides poor, is wildly unpopular
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The Independent Online

Yesterday, Kenneth Clarke was mostly being wheeled on to the Today programme at 8.10am. Now I've written some dull and pointless intros on this page, you'll agree, but none as aimlessly dreary as that. What could be of interest about a Tory economic spokesman going on the radio to discuss the burgeoning deficit that threatens to impoverish our children's children even unto the seventh generation?

It only seems worth mentioning for the novelty value. Since becoming shadow Business Secretary two-and-a-half years ago, the engaging old bruiser with the Chris Tarrant laugh has been the dog that barely cocked his leg. He's scarcely been allowed out of the kennel at all, in fact, which tells us nothing about David Cameron's style of leadership we didn't know, but does offer a useful lesson as to why a thumping Tory win on 6 May remains unlikely.

The lesson is that leadership by tiny clique, apart from being a reliable recipe for poor government, is wildly unpopular. The image of a regime in which every ounce of political power is wielded by a small, like-minded cabal of chums, as many unelected as elected, has come to repel the punters. The collapse of Tony Blair's and latterly Gordon Brown's reputations makes this very plain. Millions of articles, blogs, books and documentaries have made the point until it's become virtually a cliché.

No one has hidden this obvious fact from Mr Cameron, yet this is the very image he has projected relentlessly until it now straddles the borderline between long-term political strategy and slow burn political suicide. He may regard running the tightest of teams as a sign of strength. The truth is that, by subliminally reminding us of the poisonous fruits of sofa government, military and otherwise, it is his gravest weakness. The appetite for elective dictatorship, never strong, has vanished entirely. The thought of going back to 1997 now turns the least delicate of stomachs.

The parallels between how Mr Blair and his wannabe heir came to the lead their parties were already, you'd have thought, worryingly close for Mr Cameron's comfort. Both executed a bloodless coup d'etat, seizing control of a battered, ailing movement that had little affection for them or their modernising world views, but was sullenly prepared to subdue the distaste and hold its tongue in return for the promise of being led out of the wilderness at last.

It worked beautifully in opposition for the entity we glamorise as New Labour, but was never more than a gang of five making an art form of autocratic centralism. They clinically suppressed internal debate to turbocharge the machine that took them to power. Unfortunately, since retaining power was their raison d'etre, that vehicle turned out to be a hearse.

Two historic landslides came first, of course, so you needn't be a genius to see why Mr Cameron developed his man crush on Mr Tony. The mystery, given that this is not a stupid man, is that despite observing Blair's disintegration at the closest of quarters he has stuck to the same flight path. Even now, like the archetypal bad general, he is fighting the last war rather than the one at hand.

Nothing exposed his cliquocratic instincts like that cataclysmic failure to replace George Osborne as shadow chancellor, after the fiasco in Corfu in 2008, with Kenneth Clarke. I wonder if Mr Cameron ever wakes at 3.30am drenched in sweat from a nightmare about that? He certainly should, because he was handed that longed for Clause 4 moment on a silver platter and imperiously waved it away in the cause of protecting the clique.

Sacking Osborne wouldn't merely have removed his weakest link, a smart but charmless figure as disliked by the public as distrusted by the City. It would have figuratively torn that Bullingdon snapshot in half, disabusing the electorate of the lethal notion – a centerpiece, no doubt, of the ensuing Labour campaign – that Cameron is shackled to dining club loyalties and the entrenchment of privilege they represent.

The benefits of having Mr Clarke as shadow chancellor might have outweighed the advantages of being shot of Mr Osborne. A new poll reveals Ken to be by light years the favoured chancellor, with Vince Cable a distant second and George barely troubling the scorers. But his value goes beyond being the last Chancellor to steer Britain smoothly out of recession.

If the man most closely associated with the regicide (or pesticide) of Mrs Thatcher seems beautifully designed to deflect Labour scaremongering about savagely Thatcherite spending cuts, Ken is equally well suited to allaying the distaste for rule by metropolitan elite. Indeed, this proudly provincial product of lower middle-class Nottingham stock is the de facto leader of the Llihgnitton set, which is not a commuter town on the outskirts of Swansea but the diametric reverse of Notting Hill.

Apart from sending Mr Clarke to the Today studio in place of Mr Osborne, who may not be too chuffed at the usurpation, other hints from Mr Cameron that he is tired of cliquocratic centralism signify the opposite when examined more closely. In ITV1's Sunday night hagiography, for example, he assured Trevor McDonald that his party chairman Eric Pickles couldn't find Notting Hill with a map in his hand. He said the same about William Hague (even more absurdly underused than Mr Clarke; every Tory election poster should feature those wise old birds), which seems a bit worrying for a would-be foreign secretary. And to think we used to cite the running of whelk stalls as the yardstick of political competence.

However, the good news for Mr Pickles is that his driver certainly can find Notting Hill, hence the portly chairman's unscheduled invasion of a meeting there to reimpose a pal of Dave's on the local party after she resigned as parliamentary candidate in pique.

Whether the fact that Joanne Cash's husband was an Eton contemporary of Mr Cameron's led to what Mr Pickles admitted was an "unprecedented" intervention, who can say? But the deployment of the fat, northern, bully boy Prescott archetype to protect the interests of the regnant gang's wider circle, not to mention such absurd micro-management, had a deafeningly Blairite ring.

If Mr Cameron has finally woken to the electoral imperative to seem collegiate, the evidence that he understands the need to govern inclusively is patchy at best. He now talks, a little wistfully, of being prepared to sack Mr Osborne, and uses Messrs Clarke and Hague a little more than previously, though nothing like enough. But you have to suspect that this awakening, like those of Oliver Sacks's narcoleptics in the film, will not last long, and that he'll relapse into the coma halfway through the door of No 10.

Yet another new poll reveals that the public's strong preference in these confusing psephological days is for a hung parliament and the decentralisation of power that necessitates. No wonder. We all watched for a decade as a cocky band of brothers greedily husbanded all the power and shut their ears to dissenting voices, with such disastrous results, but few had a clearer view than David Cameron.

If he is determined to produce a mystery play, retelling that morality tale with minimal variations the moment the curtain comes down on the previous performance, it won't just be déjà vu all over again. It will be something close to a crime against democracy.

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