A new political landscape: engaging with Cameronism.

AuthorReyes, Oscar
PositionFeatures - English politician David Cameron

With Gordon Brown becoming Prime Minister on the back of an opinion poll lead for Labour, Conservative strategists might now be thinking that they should be more careful in what they wish for. Since David Cameron became Conservative leader in December 2005, much energy has been invested in pre-emptive strikes against Brown. A central plank of this approach has been to talk up environmental and social issues, promoting a Conservative vision of 'wellbeing' designed to outflank the former Chancellor's perceived economism. The 'Brown bump' may yet be a temporary phenomenon, but it must nevertheless worry the Conservative leadership that the contrasting political styles of Brown and Cameron have not consolidated personal support for their candidate, who still trails Brown by some distance in perceptions of his 'prime ministerial' qualities.

The Cameronites' attempts to stage their own 'Clause Four moment' have likewise resulted in failure, indifference or confusion. In September 2006, the Conservative Party adopted Built to Last, a new statement of aims and values that aimed to project the image of an 'open, meritocratic and forward-looking' party (Conservative Party, 2006). Faced with a straight choice between voting for a bland new statement or the perceived political suicide of voting against it, most party members chose a third way and did not vote at all. A 92.7 per cent endorsement could not mask the indifference of a 26.7 per cent turnout. David Willetts and David Cameron's attempts to slaughter the sacred cow of the party's commitment to grammar schools delivered a more convincing symbolic moment, but an even less satisfactory outcome for the Conservative leadership. It is a moot point whether the two Davids deliberately sought this debate to signal the party's break with its past. What is far clearer is that the subsequent policy confusion, and Cameron's inability to project a decisive victory for his 'modernising' project, marked a significant setback.

From a left perspective, it is tempting to take no more than a sporting interest in the Conservatives' latest failures and leave it to Tory strategists to puzzle over their wider implications. This would be a mistake. Relying upon the Conservative capacity for self-harm and infighting is not as safe a bet today as it has been for much of the past 15 years. Whether we are thinking through our own politics post-Blair, or confronting the Conservative Party's potential for resurgence, we need to move beyond our own stereotypes to offer a more nuanced interpretation of the Cameronite project. It is also tempting, and comforting, to conclude that the Cameron leadership offers merely cosmetic changes that do little to alter the Conservative Party's anatomy. David Cameron is basically an iPod, a fashion device onto whom right-wingers of all tastes can download their favourite Conservative tunes, be they 1950s crooners or 1980s classics. The left can play with this Cameron iPod too. We can project him as a vacuous moderniser, the Conservative marketing department's chosen successor to Blair. We might equally interpret the Tories' endorsement of a pro-fox-hunting Etonian as a reversion to type. But these caricatures do not take us far in understanding the specificity of the emerging Cameron agenda--its distinctive mix of something old, something...

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