Friday, 17 October 2008

Blink, not Nudge: the new Cameron doctrine?

David Cameron's speech on the economy got a lukewarm reception. The political tactics of choosing when to renew a partisan attack were less important than the question of content: fully 81% of PoliticsHome's insider panel felt the speech lacked substance. That is a criticism made by several Conservative voices.

The speech tries to weave between several different, usually opposing, arguments. To say that Labour, having become pro-market, did not do enough to scrutinise what types of market it wanted is a broadly social democratic point. But Cameron also warns against increasing intervention as a result of the crisis, which is itself then modified with a rejection of laissez-faire.

The Goldilocks quality to the speech - "It is not enough for Government to get out of the way – they've got to get involved" - is not untypical of David Cameron. Wherever possible, he prefers not to show his hand or be pinned down.

So, perhaps the most interesting moment in the speech comes right at the start, where Cameron asserts that what matters most in politics - more than political values, vision or policies - are "judgement calls":

Politics is about many things – the words you speak, the understanding you have of the problems we face, the vision you have, the policies you draw up and your ability to implement them. But all of those rest on the shoulders of one thing – the decisions and judgement calls you make.

This new Cameron Doctrine is less about 'Nudge' but the previous pop psychology best-seller Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. (Subtitle: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking).

It seems that Cameron's central claim to the Premiership is that he, personally, would make the right calls.

He believes that his political leadership has been characterised by coolness under fire, in winning his party's leadership and when under pressure from the 2007 Brown bounce.

And, if that is the test, then he can avoid pinned down ideologically for longer. So, in some ways, this is just another version of politics as managerialism: to compete on competence, rather than on a distinctive argument or set of values.

Though oppositions can ride their luck in this way, there is no credible basis - except hindsight - for Cameron's claim that he would have spotted the dangers. No serious observer believes that the Tories would have seen the need for more regulation, not less. And that is because of the party's ideological values and instincts.

And so the real call which Cameron faces remains a political one, dramatised in the two most interesting political commentaries in today's newspapers.

Jeff Randall has made waves in Westminster today by an attack on George Osborne which vents the views of the party's right: not just accusing 'boy George' of going missing in action and, perhaps more importantly, the Tories of not opposing action which offends their core principles. John Redwood has consistently opposed the nationalisation of banks during this crisis: the Tory leadership has not.

Alternatively, Steve Richards' incisive column today, suggests that the Tory leader can see the case for making a more substantive break with the laissez-faire instincts of his party, while recognising the political tensions in doing so.

But Cameron has become rather more cautious and conventionally Conservative during a year in which he has been on top politically, than he was in his insurgent bid for the party leadership. Perhaps his preference will continue to be to pick and mix, articulating parts of these contrasting views, while avoiding making a choice between them.

As Richards suggests, Cameron made today's speech before deciding what his line is.

And that choice would not be about character and gut instincts - but about politics after all.

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