Those who are complaining that David Cameron's publication of a progressive "statement of values" is an artificial exercise are not entirely wrong. The slick presentation of this document clearly owes a good deal to the background of the Conservative leader and some of his advisers in public relations.
The internal debate within the Labour Party in 1994 over Clause IV was also somewhat artificial. Labour's commitment to the "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" had not been taken seriously in the party for some time. Yet the decision of Tony Blair to alter Labour's constitution was symbolically important. The message to the wider election was that Labour had changed and could be trusted to exercise power again. Mr Cameron claims to dislike the historical parallel, but this is clearly what he now hopes to accomplish for the Tories, by submitting this statement for approval by the party's membership.
What we are witnessing is the second stage of Mr Cameron's project to revive Conservative fortunes. Stage one was getting the public to form a positive impression of Mr Cameron in the wake of his election as Tory leader in December last year. This has been largely achieved. Now comes stage two: an attempt to change the negative public perceptions of his party.
The document released yesterday is thin on detail, but it does contain a number of striking promises. There is a pledge to increase Britain's international aid budget and an acceptance that "it is our moral obligation to make poverty history". There is an unequivocal environmental commitment to search for "a long-term cross-party consensus on sustainable development and climate change". Economic stability is deemed a higher priority than tax cuts. There is talk of "social justice" and an admission that "Government can be a force for good". These are welcome statements that turn recent Tory policy on its head. The Conservative leadership seems to be rediscovering the centre ground - and this time there is cause for hope that it might remain there. This will, at the very least, revive the credibility of the Opposition, whose absence has damaged our political system.
Symbolic gestures matter. For good or ill, this is a fundamental aspect of modern politics. So it is sensible for Mr Cameron to try to create a sense of momentum around his party, particularly at a time when he does not actually have any policies to place before the public. It will, however, take more than warm words to convince the electorate. Only when the Tory policy review teams report back with their recommendations in 17 months will we know for sure whether the party has changed. And we should remember that some of these reviews are being chaired by figures on the right of the party, most notably John Redwood. Little wonder that the rumblings of discontent have not exploded into open dissent yet; the self-appointed keepers of the Thatcherite flame will keep their powder dry until they see the policies they are asked to support next year. This will be the make-or-break moment for the Cameron project.
The issuing of value statements is the easy bit. The former Tory leader Michael Howard produced his own statement of his "beliefs" two years ago. In the end, these bore little resemblance to the policies on which the Tories campaigned in the 2005 general election.
There are encouraging signs that Mr Cameron and his advisers have learnt some of the lessons of the Tory party's three successive election defeats. But it is too early to say the same about his party as a whole. The Tories' "Clause IV moment", if there is to be one, lies some way further down the line.Reuse content