Steve Richards: Cameron is an old-fashioned Tory trying to come to terms with the modern era

The Tory leader plays the part brilliantly, but he is nowhere near ready to become the part for real
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Forget about the divisions within the Conservative Party. They are not as great as they seem. The Conservatives remain more or less united in their support for a smaller state, tax cuts and Euroscepticism. David Cameron is at one with his party on these defining themes, even if at times he appears to be taking them on.

The apparent tensions arise because Cameron claims to seek progressive outcomes. Yet his speech on Sunday was studded with attacks on the state and regulation, the devices deployed in various forms to bring about progressive change. Instead, Cameron argues that exhortation and a new sense of social responsibility will do the trick.

Cameron is a traditional Tory trying to come to terms with the modern era. In that sense, comparisons with Tony Blair are misplaced. He is closer to Neil Kinnock, who sought to adapt to the 1980s but took time to develop a sense of genuine new direction. Kinnock could not hide his unease. In contrast, Cameron plays the part of a crusading progressive brilliantly, but he is nowhere near ready to become the part for real.

Here is an emblematic quote from Cameron's speech to his conference on Sunday: "We need to understand that cultural change is worth any number of government initiatives. Who has done more to improve school food, Jamie Oliver, or the Department of Education? Put another way, we need more of Supernanny and less of the nanny state."

Bingo! There are more populist themes in those sentences than Gordon Brown manages in an entire speech. But there is a fundamental and fatal flaw. The answer to the question posed by Cameron is not the one he wants. He implies that Oliver is what matters, not that wretched overpowering state.

The opposite is the case. School dinners became a disgrace in the 1980s because the previous Conservative government privatised the catering services and regulated with a lighter touch. At the same time they cut the money spent on dinners. Two years ago Oliver changed the culture single-handedly, but he would not have needed to do so if it were not for the light regulation and the cuts in public spending. Even after Oliver's intervention, he was dependent on the Government increasing the amount of money spent on school dinners and regulating standards more rigorously.

The withdrawal of the nanny state caused the crisis in the 1980s, and the intervention of the state now will deal with the crisis. Oliver's contribution was to force the state to intervene. Thank goodness for the nanny state. It was the double act that worked, Oliver and the state. Cameron implies that Oliver did it alone.

Cameron believes that "cultural change" is more important than government action. This gives him the space to talk about progressive causes without explaining what he would do to implement them. His point is that it is not what he does that is significant. Again, conveniently for a silver-tongued politician, it is what he says that matters.

Exhortation is pivotal. Presumably, in the case of school dinners, Cameron would exhort, sit back and expect private catering companies to change their ways without the government acting. He would be sitting back and waiting for a long time. Party leaders who have some early success in the media are often deluded about their capacity to change the weather.

It is not like that for very long in power. I recall Blair summoning Railtrack executives and pleading with them to change their appallingly complacent ways. The executives were genuinely shocked. They were accountable to shareholders, not anyone else. That was the level of their social responsibility.

But Cameron applies his light touch across the board. In a BBC interview on Sunday he argued that the provision of nuclear power would be a matter for the private sector. In the meantime, he expected individuals to lead more energy efficient lives. This is an extreme vision of small government, not even accepting responsibility for the provision of energy. If there were power cuts under a Cameron government would he say that this was a matter of individual and corporate responsibility?

In Cameron's speech, he called admirably for safer streets, higher teaching standards in schools which will also become places of "discipline and order", a better balance between family and work life, no alcohol sold to children and an end to the music industry using violent and homophobic lyrics.

This is good stuff, but to achieve the objectives he would require more regulations and targets. Yet Cameron wants less regulation and fewer targets. In a BBC interview, Rupert Murdoch's friend, the columnist Irwin Stelzer, said that he was confused and preferred the Cameron who was in favour of a smaller state.

I prefer the progressive Cameron, but do not see how he can get anywhere when he retains an attachment to a smaller state. In trying to please everyone he is in danger of pleasing no one.

The combination of traditional small-state Toryism linked to progressive aspirations works politically for a time. It means that, for now, Cameron can still promise tax cuts in principle while appearing to be responsible by making it clear that they will not happen immediately. Note that the likes of the ardent tax-cutter John Redwood are content with this policy.

The approach also enables Cameron to make significant shifts in presentational gear. He told his conference that voters did not like it when his party continued to "bang on" about Europe. This did not mean the destructively Eurosceptic approach had changed. It is just that they should not bang on. Most important of all, he sounds like a modern progressive leader, but like all right-wingers he believes it's up to the individual to deliver.

For those who do not follow politics closely and cannot see the joins, the impact is intoxicating in the short term. Voters can have it all: a small state, the prospect of lower taxes, businesses delivering for communities rather than their shareholders, green policies. It will give him the most potent of slogans: "Power to the people ... get the state off our backs."

This will not work in power when government is blamed if there is a train crash in Sheffield or a hospital ward closes in Southend. In theory, voters want more responsibility, but, in reality and with good cause, they hold government responsible for public services. They know also that deregulation, while theoretically popular, means poorer school meals and rotten train services.

Away from Bournemouth and in the real world, an eye-wateringly tight public spending round looms. Next year, the Conservatives will unveil their detailed policies. Well before the general election, Cameron's claim that it is possible to be a small-state Tory and a modern progressive will be put to some very severe tests.