Steve Richards: Moats, money and the real meaning of modernisation

Cameron reminds me of Blair in opposition - and I don't mean that as an insult

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The most ubiquitous and conveniently imprecise term in British politics is "modernisation". Labour won three elections in a row after modernising. David Cameron has claimed to have modernised the Conservative Party and expects to be rewarded with victory at the next election. Evidently the forward-looking term has huge electoral appeal, even if no one quite knows what it means.

Nonetheless, one of the dangers of claiming modernisation is that everyone knows instinctively what it does not mean. The danger for Mr Cameron in yesterday's huge front-page headline in The Daily Telegraph – "Paying Bills For Tory Grandees" – is that voters are reminded that no political party changes its ways entirely with a few waves of a leader's wand. The Tory grandees are still there and, while Cameron has been proclaiming a new-look party, they have been claiming for the upkeep of their moats, their paddocks and their swimming pools. There is nothing modern in the upkeep of a moat.

Cameron is not responsible for the composition of the parliamentary party he leads. He did not become leader until after the last general election. Still, that is to some extent the point. The revelations highlight the narrow limits of Cameron's claims to modernisation.

Changing a political party in a substantial way is a massive task. It took Labour 14 years to "modernise", a period in which Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair challenged their party more frequently and visibly than Cameron has done with his. Even then, Tony Blair told me in an interview in 1996 that not much of the existing Parliamentary Labour Party was fully signed up to New Labour. He said that he expected the next PLP to be more Blairite and the one after that to be even more so. Change can take 20 years.

The challenge for Cameron is that he has been making big modernising claims for quite some time already. He deploys that other potent and imprecise term "change" as regularly as President Barack Obama, and quite often in relation to his own party. This has often infuriated those associated with the New Labour project, as they recall all the sweaty confrontations with their party and the huge amount of work that went into changing policies as well as tone and image. Recently on the BBC, I chaired an exchange between Alastair Campbell and Daniel Finklestein, the former Conservative strategist who is now a columnist and most persuasive advocate of Cameron and George Osborne's modernising strategy. Repeatedly, Campbell asked Finklestein to name the big policy changes that had taken place under Cameron. Finklestein insisted that the priority for the Conservatives was different to Labour's; they needed tonal change above all.

Tonal change is threatened when the old grandees and their apparent greed are the story of the day, not least because Cameron has not got the same profound policy reforms on which to cling when the choreography of politics starts to crumble. At his press conference yesterday, he cited the environment, the NHS and poverty as three areas in which the party had modernised.

There have been significant changes in these areas, but they are not especially dramatic. In other areas such as "tax and spend" and Europe there has been no great change. Tonally, though, Cameron's leadership has conveyed a tolerant good humoured and thoughtful receptiveness that has in some ways come to represent his party.

An opposition leader is partly an artist. He or she cannot be judged on the implementation of policy as they have no power. Instead, the task is to weave a narrative about leadership and the party. Blair announced that Labour was "new" within days of securing the leadership in 1994, and yet a lot of the policies that formed the manifesto in 1997 were agreed before he took over. Cameron has managed to weave a spell even though his MPs were claiming for moats.

Alert to the dangers of the spell being broken, Cameron moved with speed and dexterity yesterday. Increasingly, he reminds me of Blair in opposition, and I do not mean that as an insult. Blair was a brilliant Leader of the Opposition. By 4pm yesterday, Cameron had shifted the focus to his response in the same way that Blair would have done, with an apology that went further than the one delivered by Gordon Brown, and measures that included Shadow Cabinet members paying back the cash for some of the dodgy claims.

It was a highly effective performance, recognising which boxes needed to be ticked and ticking them. Not surprisingly, it was announced shortly afterwards that Labour whips were in similar discussions with their MPs. No one can accuse Brown and Labour of setting the agenda effectively on this one.

Does Cameron's damage-limitation exercise mean his modernisation project is back on track? That will partly depend on whether his measures announced yesterday with a flourish stand up to detailed scrutiny over the next few weeks. Those paying back money and those that are not seems to be based on vague criteria at the moment. Indeed, the main criteria seem to be whether or not they have been fingered by the Telegraph. There might well be trouble ahead.

But the question is more relevant in a wider context. Once more, it depends what is meant by modernisation. Voters have been given a vivid reminder that in its composition the Conservative Party is not as "modern" as the leadership has claimed. The academic Phil Cowley, the ultimate expert on these matters, tells me the next Conservative parliamentary party will be slightly more representative in terms of women and ethnic minorities, but as distant as ever from Britain in terms of its social background and wealth. Nonetheless, voters have also been given a reminder of Cameron's quick-footed agility. He has been a leader for a long time now and seems as fresh as ever.

In the end, political footwork is a pre-condition to success as a leader, but still a marginal matter. While Blair would have done exactly what Cameron did yesterday, we should not forget that when he won the election he did not know what to do about the "modernisation" of welfare or indeed in quite a few policy areas. "Modernising" his party in opposition was sometimes a diversion from developing policies.

Campbell made a strong point in his conversation with Finklestein. Getting the tone right is relatively easy. Linking tone to detailed policy changes is the challenge. If the Conservatives are going to spend no more on schools will they redistribute cash from schools in affluent areas to boost those in poorer ones? If not, are they scrapping plans to spend more on poorer pupils?

There are two questions of many relating to policy that are a bigger test of "modernisation" than the fact that a Tory MP claimed for horse manure or indeed that their education spokesman, Michael Gove, is paying back money spent on furniture that he seemed to have every right to spend.

Cameron did what needed to be done yesterday. If the measures were rushed, he had no choice but to be speedy. The much bigger tests of whether he has modernised his party are still to come.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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