John Rentoul: Cameron is the new Blair

The Tory leader has learnt from New Labour not to promise too much. There's little danger of that

Sunday 08 November 2009 01:00

"What are Cameron's 10 Bills for his first Queen's Speech?" a Cabinet minister asked me recently in disbelieving frustration. "The Swedish Schools Bill, and what else?" This could be a consistent theme of Labour attacks on the Conservatives, if Labour attacks on the opposition were sustained and coherent enough to have a consistent theme. You could imagine that, if the Labour Party had more confidence, it could take the Tories apart for their inconsistencies and their lack of preparedness for government. You could. But you would be missing the point.

Of course David Cameron's party is riven with fundamental contradictions, and of course neither he nor any of his Shadow Cabinet is ready for government – not even the few that have government experience. No one ever is. One experienced Labour adviser told me about the shock of moving from opposition into power: "It is just a bloody wall when you run into it. I come across some of their advisers: they will not know what's hit them."

Last week the Conservatives did two important things in preparing for government. Cameron ditched the policy of a referendum on Europe; and Michael Gove made a speech on schools policy. The first everyone noticed; the second was probably more important for what a Conservative government would actually do.

The first, it must be said, was a brilliant short-term political operation. The sight of the Tory leader taking Liam Fox hostage was a remarkable one. On the morning of Cameron's statement, there were photographs in the newspapers of the Tory leader on the London Underground, with Fox. Then there was footage on the television news of Cameron arriving at the venue to deliver his statement, with William Hague, shadow Foreign Secretary, and Fox.

What has the shadow spokesman on Defence, who writes opposite, to do with Europe? Everything, if you know the internal dynamics of the Tory party: remember that Fox ran Cameron and David Davis close in the 2005 leadership election, and that Cameron peeled off some of Fox's Eurosceptic supporters late in the day to make it to the run-off ballot. Yet Cameron's statement also satisfied the pro-European Kenneth Clarke.

My esteemed colleague Alan Watkins, on page 47, says that the Tory leader is prone to mistakes in his European policy; he may be, but I do not think that this is one of them. On the contrary, it would seem that in one bound Cameron is free. He was much criticised, including in these pages, for refusing to face up to the possibility of a Yes vote in the Irish referendum, and held the preposterous line of "only one policy at a time". Delaying last week's announcement until the Lisbon Treaty was finally a legal fact was cowardly, intellectually unsatisfactory and absolutely right. The delay allowed the Foxite wing of his party to come to terms in advance with their betrayal. Cameron now has as much room for manoeuvre on Europe as is possible while leading a fundamentally Eurosceptic party. In government, he would have as much room for manoeuvre as is possible while leading a fundamentally Eurosceptic country. In a negative sense, then, of getting awkward stuff out of the way, Cameron is prepared for government.

The positive preparations are less far advanced. I remember a Cameron "town hall" meeting in Cornwall last year, when he was asked: "How can you make us believe in you?" His reply was telling: "I learnt a lot from watching Blair. He was a brilliant leader of the opposition but hadn't really thought through what he'd do in power. What I learnt is: don't over-promise." In other words, he is going to be exactly like Tony Blair.

"Don't over-promise" was precisely the lesson that Blair had worked out for himself. If anyone remembers what the British people actually voted for in 1997 – smaller class sizes, shorter waiting lists, faster sentencing and young people off welfare and into work – the striking feature was their modesty. The trouble was that the size of Blair's majority convinced everyone that they had voted for something greater, more exciting, more transformative, thus raising expectations that could not be met. That is not a problem that Cameron is likely to have. With the electoral system tilted against him, his majority is likely to be small, and he will inherit wrecked public finances.So it could be that the Blair strategy would be right this time: keep your options open and focus on a few of what are now known in New Labourese as "key deliverables".

Which is where Michael Gove's speech comes in. His plan, modelled on Sweden, to set up new small secondary schools is one of the Conservatives' few credible policies. The aim is to turbo-charge the Blair reforms that became bogged down in the inertia and vested interests of the status quo. Gove's speech was another raid on left-wing values of education as the engine of greater equality, quoting Nye Bevan and claiming: "The central mission of the next Conservative government is the alleviation of poverty and the extension of opportunity." He has also recruited Sally Morgan and Julian le Grand, Blair's former advisers, to help with a cross-party initiative, New Schools Network, to promote new providers of schools.

This is promising, and it may be the best that can be hoped for from a Cameron administration: that it does not try to do too much, but focuses on one area where real improvements are needed and "deliverable" even in conditions of extreme fiscal stringency. As Cameron said last week in his Europe statement: "If we win the election, we will inherit the worst public finances of any incoming government for 50 years. We will have a generational challenge to get Britain to live within her means [and] to secure economic recovery." The idea that Cameron's first Queen's Speech may contain only one substantial piece of legislation, a "Swedish Schools Bill", is paradoxically reassuring.

John Rentoul blogs at

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