Steve Richards: David Cameron should not be deceived by all the applause. There is trouble ahead

The struggles with his party's instincts, and sometimes his own, should be liberating for the timid Government
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The Independent Online

David Cameron is in a more painfully contorted position than his self-confident demeanour suggests. Every inch of Mr Cameron's politically attuned body knows his party must move to the centre ground. Yet he leads a party and a shadow cabinet rooted firmly still on the right. Some of his own policy pronouncements place him on the right, too. In spite of the giddy excitement of recent days, I see trouble ahead.

After the novelty of the coronation and the hyperbolic reaction to Prime Minister's Question Time, the new Shadow Cabinet has a familiar air. Messrs Davis, Letwin, Fox and, in a different capacity, Duncan Smith stand ready to serve once more. They are all passionate advocates of a smaller state, low taxes and cuts in public spending. Each of them speaks sincerely about the need to address poverty in Britain.

But what are their policies to bring this about? They are in the contradictory position of being hyperactive politicians arguing that politicians should do less, except in foreign lands where their neoconservative instincts extend beyond enthusiastic support for the war against Iraq.

The new shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, acquired a soaring popularity after he ceased to be leader. Now he returns to active politics presumably to resume his old role as a Eurosceptic and strong supporter of the war against Iraq.

A Conservative Party heading with genuine enthusiasm for the centre ground would back Tony Blair's attempt to pay for the enlargement of the EU by offering a small proportion of Britain's rebate as part of a wider deal. But Mr Hague indicated yesterday he would not be prepared to do so. Even if he were inclined to demonstrate a new pragmatism by supporting Mr Blair's negotiations, some of his MPs would stir furiously. This is still the parliamentary party that dumped the pro-European Ken Clarke at the earliest possible moment in the recent leadership contest.

On the domestic front, Mr Cameron's support for Mr Blair's education reforms is strategically astute, but does not in itself indicate a move towards the centre ground. Mr Cameron backs the proposals because in some limited ways they echo the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s. But as the new leader made clear in his stylistically impressive debut at Prime Minister's Question Time, he wants schools to be able to select on the basis of ability at the age of 11. He has yet to explain what would happen to the kids that were rejected.

Here is an early example of a policy belief at odds with Mr Cameron's desire for a more socially inclusive society. There is nothing less inclusive than parents battling it out with each other to get their kids to the schools that cheat by selecting the brightest and most motivated pupils. At least Mr Blair's contradictory approach veers on the side of social justice. He talks about setting schools free, but opposes their right to select on the basis of ability. His muddled version is fairer and more inclusive than Mr Cameron's free-for-all.

Mr Cameron's struggles with his party's instincts, and sometimes his own, should be liberating for the timid Labour Government. Contrary to mythology, senior ministers are not burdened by arrogance, but by a near-paralysing fear of the Conservative Party. Since 1997, Mr Blair has been obsessed by the need to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives even when he was 20 points ahead in the polls.

As Iain Duncan Smith showed signs of forging close ties with President Bush in 2001, Mr Blair blocked the political space by establishing his own uniquely supportive relationship. When the Tories were about to launch a reactionary policy on crime, a headline-grabbing initiative from Downing Street would be announced. When the Conservatives sought to exploit fears in relation to immigration, Mr Blair popped up to announce almost as tyrannical a set of policies. More broadly, Mr Blair has defined himself partly against his own party knowing the Tories were so far to the right this placed him on safe ground in the middle.

All of this changes dramatically as a result of Mr Cameron's election. If Mr Blair distances himself from Labour, the new Tory leader will cheer him on. Mr Blair now has the chance to define himself against a Conservative leader who aspires to occupy the same space. Ironically, Mr Cameron's astonishing triumph presents a rare opportunity for a left-of-centre government to place its own fresh emphasis on issues relating to inner city poverty and social justice, the environment, and decently funded public services.

In the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher used to taunt Neil Kinnock by saying that while he might aspire to strong defence policies it was the Conservative government that believed in them. Ministers are in a position to assert that while Mr Cameron aspires to social justice they have the policies and the beliefs to bring it about.

They should welcome Mr Cameron's attempt to move in a leftward direction, taunt him for lacking the means to move very far and proclaim that they are capable of delivering more effectively on the same progressive agenda. Whether a government going through its most dysfunctional phase is capable of responding with such robust self-confidence is unclear.

Mr Cameron's challenges are closer to those faced by Mr Kinnock in the 1980s than Mr Blair's task as a new leader in 1994 when Labour had already changed significantly and was well ahead in the polls. Mr Kinnock was a unilateralist who knew he must become a multilateralist before persuading his party to do so, one of several policy U-turns.

Mr Cameron knows his party must embrace social justice, but is identified currently with policies that could bring about considerable social injustice. Those who know him well tell me he is already firmly placed on the centre ground. One senior Shadow Cabinet member describes him as more of a Fabian gradualist than a Thatcherite revolutionary. Even if these observations prove to be correct, Mr Cameron has still to push his party in the same direction.

He has many advantages. The media is willing him to be a success. Mr Cameron's Shadow Cabinet colleagues will also behave while he appears to be a winner. Those close to David Davis tell me the limit of his ambition now is to become the home secretary in a Cameron government. He is resolved to be unfailingly loyal. If the vanquished rival is in such a co-operative mood, others will be even more ready to dance to their dynamic leader's tunes, at least for now.

But do not be deceived by the rapturous media of the last few days. A right-wing party heads towards the centre ground while currently advocating tax cuts, militant Euroscepticism and hints of a neoconservative foreign policy. For Mr Cameron, launching policy reviews is blissfully easy. Deciding their outcomes will be nightmarishly difficult.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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