The Conservatives are no nearer to resolving the identity crisis that has afflicted them since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. In some ways, David Cameron's leadership has made matters worse. They show signs of being even more confused than they were under Michael Howard in the run up to the last election.
No wonder Mr Cameron expresses sympathy with "hoodies". At least the hoodies resolve their lack of identity by donning an intimidating and recognisable uniform. Mr Cameron's party is not yet ready to hunt together. It lacks the coherence to become the hoodies of national politics. Indeed a mini crisis has whirled around Mr Cameron's leadership since the recent Bromley by-election and the confusion caused by the leader's tentative ventures into policy making.
The Bromley by-election result was extraordinary. At a time when the Government was vulnerable on several fronts, and when Mr Cameron was on a political honeymoon, the Conservatives only just retained a previously safe seat. Many of those who strode out to vote happily for the party at the last election under Michael Howard's leadership stayed at home or voted for another party last month.
The party's post mortem has been more illuminating than the bleak result. The local party chose their own candidate, rather than one from the so called A-list. But those close to the leadership tell me they are not clear whether a name from the A-List would have done better or worse. In other words they are unsure whether in parts of Britain Mr Cameron's attempts to modernise the party are part of the problem or the solution. Were the voters protesting because Mr Cameron had gone too far or not far enough?
The tensions are reflected in the conflicting attitudes towards Mr Cameron's leadership. One veteran modernising Tory MP regrets privately that he received no support from Mr Cameron while making the same progressive case throughout the last Parliament. In contrast, some on the right recall Mr Cameron's loyalty to previous leaders and wonder with what conviction he apparently leaps so far in a different direction now. Yet Mr Cameron's leadership is both subtler and less convincing than internal critics realise. He hints at a change of direction but quite often does not follow his own new route maps. At this stage he is still closer in political spirit to Bromley than he is to Hampstead. His problem is that voters in Bromley do not seem to realise it.
The presentation of Mr Cameron's new approach to crime highlights the ambiguity. While Tony Blair stressed in the mid 1990s that Labour would be tough on crime, Mr Cameron seeks to purge his party of nastiness by placing new emphasis on the causes of violent disorder. In attempting to do so Mr Cameron delivered a speech yesterday that was truly refreshing and politically courageous in its diagnosis. The problems came later when he gave a vague sense of his preferred remedy.
Early in the speech he stated the obvious but in a way that political leaders rarely dare to do. Mr Cameron told a conference that condemnation of criminals was the easy part. The challenge was to recognise that circumstances determine behaviour. He pointed out that groups such as "hoodies" were a response to a problem, and not necessarily the problem. The quality of care was what mattered and the need to give love to those who were disconnected. No wonder The Daily Telegraph fumed in an editorial yesterday. But the form of love that Mr Cameron seeks should make The Daily Telegraph purr approvingly. In the same speech Mr Cameron declared that it was time for government and the public sector to let go. He said government's record in this area was lousy. Instead Mr Cameron looks to the voluntary sector to deliver.
The voluntary sector is the new political fashion. The Government is also a fan. But Mr Cameron dismisses the role of the state too glibly. The voluntary sector lacks the resources to address the crisis on its own. Charities are not accountable in the way that elected politicians are. Accountability can concentrate minds. The current government is pledged to abolish child poverty. Do we want the Government to "let go" as it seeks to meet such a worthy target?
The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who is reviewing social policies for the Conservative Party, also stressed yesterday the appalling damage caused by family breakdown. He does so with good cause and with a genuine conviction. But an old-fashioned exhortation about the values of the family cannot be the answer. The causes of family breakdown must be explored in the same way as the related causes of crime. Schooling, housing, employment and transport are part of the fundamental problem. In these policy areas and others it is neither realistic nor desirable for the state to let go.
Mr Cameron's speech on crime was emblematic. The new-look Conservatives start as progressives and end often in a more familiar reactionary position. In recent weeks they have raised the prospect of English MPs voting alone on some legislation, challenged the legitimacy of the European Convention on Human Rights and endorsed policies that imply withdrawal from the European Union. In addition we are soon to hear how Mr Cameron plans to leave the centre-right group of MEPs in Brussels, thereby perversely marking out clear blue water with the likes of Chancellor Merkel in Germany.
I am told that Neil Kinnock is frustrated that the Government does not attack Mr Cameron in the way that he was battered around by the Conservatives in the 1980s. From the beginning of his leadership in 1983, Mr Kinnock was caught in a fatal trap. If he did not change his party he was doomed. Yet if he succeeded in reforming Labour he would be accused of being unprincipled and untrustworthy. Mr Kinnock took the second route. As a result the Conservatives successfully portrayed him as a man who would do anything to win.
Now Mr Kinnock notes that Mr Cameron has apparently changed more in six months than he did in nine years and yet many of the changes are accompanied by approving comments from political opponents. Mr Cameron does not seem trapped in the same way.
Mr Kinnock is impatient. At this stage it is not clear what type of leader Mr Cameron will become. Will the policies take his party on to the centre ground or will they remain rooted on the right, accompanied by a more benevolent mood music?
What should worry Mr Cameron is that voters in Bromley have decided that their leader is leaping too far to the left, while those on the centre-left show only a limited willingness to switch sides. In spite of showing much imaginative flair since becoming leader Mr Cameron has yet to link his party's core vote with the wider electorate.Reuse content