Sunday 1 February 2009

Cameronism: the politics of a Tory court

This morning's Observer makes much of "an extraordinary email exchange" between David Cameron and Will Hutton across a double-page spread. I am less sure. So, perhaps, is Hutton. While Cameron has enjoyed the "frank exchange", Hutton complains, with some justice, finds that Cameron often retreats to his "comfort zone - a litany of prearranged policies". The willingness to take part in the exchange reveals more than its content.

Hutton found Cameron's Davos speech more interesting. James Crabtree at Prospect's first drafts blog finds more than an echo of Phillip Blond's Red Tory thesis in it. My take on this - in a long piece on Red Toryism for Liberal Conspiracy - was that Prospect's striking Maggie as Che cover captures that the barrier to a Red Tory revolution is the Thatcher legacy: Blond on blonde, perhaps.

That is undecided. The Observer reports the Hutton exchange in a page 2 news story as 'Cameron moves on from Thatcher era', as against Friday's Guardian headline that Cameron hailed Thatcher's call for a truly popular capitalism in the same Davos speech. And anybody who re-reads Thatcher's 1987 interview with Woman's Own from which the 'no such thing as society' soundbite came, will find it as plausible to claim that Cameron's doctrine of 'social responsibility' is seeking to rehabilitate Thatcherism in softer hues rather than to repudiate it.

But that need not make Cameron an unreconstructed Thatcherite, as Labour likes to suggest. I would suggest that the most significant line in this exchange comes when Hutton presses Cameron on the merits of Keynesianism. Cameron offers a characteristic tactical swerve, into which rather more can be read;

As a Conservative, I'm naturally sceptical of embracing anyone's theory or ideology; [although I agree that Keynes had many good ideas].

There has been a confused search for the real David Cameron. But here is the real David Cameron: a pragmatic Tory.

This leaves the content of his Toryism open. Phillip Blond tells us that Cameron will prove more Red and progressive than any of us anticipate; Zac Goldsmith believes the green Tories have the ear of their bicycling leader; David Marquand suggested that he inherits the pragmatic Whig tradition of Macmillan, just before Cameron's re-embracing of fiscal conservatism; Andy Coulson has been brought in to balance Steve Hilton, much to the relief of ConservativeHome. Dan Hannan MEP is confident that Cameron will prove much more Eurosceptic than anybody realises while Ken Clarke has a place at the top table. The leader has much more interest in adding to the layers of ambiguity than in clarifying any of this: he describes himself as a liberal Conservative and high Tory, and as a liberal idealist and conservative realist in foreign policy.

He may be all of these things, though only up to a point. This is not simply to observe that opposition leaders can be all things to all people. For this is likely to be Cameron's strategy for government too.

I suggest that the emerging strategy of Cameron's Conservatism is to run a Tory court. All will have his ear, and none his full allegiance. He will embrace the many contradictions by stating that Toryism at its best is never doctrinaire, seeking to recognise the merits of all of these arguments while noting too the value of other arguments that they conflict with.

(Some may say this is simply the Blairite big tent revisited. But, beyond the different balance of voices around the table, there is I think one crucial difference. New Labour argued that different interests could always be synthesised: this provided its certainty and modernising mission. Part of the point of a Tory court politics might be to admit that they can not be).

Of course, finally, to govern is to choose. What this model leaves open the balance of interests and ideas at court - and how these would determine the politics and decisions of Cameronism.

Yet, paradoxically, a leadership which sees merit in having no firmly fixed view about the ideological direction of the party can not take a laissez-faire view about the party's internal debates. For it is impossible to run a Tory court politics without there being different and competing views in the party. The Tory wets had no successor generation, while the Eurosceptic right has organised effectively at constituency level and in parliamentary selections. To the extent that the party has been thinking, it mainly thinks one thing: that less state equals more freedom. Many on the party's right see this as a good thing: ideological unity. But it means the leadership is pressured in only one direction, with an echo of 'no compromise with the electorate' in it.

This, I suspect, is what lies behind the Tory leadership's intriguing sponsorship of Red Toryism. Not, as Blond suggests, because this is where Cameron's true instincts lie. There is, to say the least, no substantive evidence for that. I would be pretty sure the Tory government is not going to break-up Tesco or pursue the protectionism implicit in the localisation model. How marvellous it would be if recapitalising the poor - ensuring assets and wealth to those who have none - were embraced as the party's defining mission. But Conservatives have rarely been more cheered in recent years than by an inheritance tax policy which points in the opposite direction.

What is going on? The easy answer is brand decontamination. But Cameron's attention to the environmental agenda, seeking visible diversity on gender and ethnicity, and perhaps now on market capitalism have another consequence too: they begin to make a 'Tory court politics' in the post-Thatcher Conservative party possible. (In doing so, this animates in miniature the core unresolved tension of any substantive Cameron agenda: he has had to take a "top down" approach to creating voices and pressures which would not otherwise exist, yet an allergy to state action currently leaves Cameronism articulating ends without means).

This would be a rational response to Cameron having had a front row seat as a special adviser in the slow death, at the hands of a Thatcherite and Eurosceptic party. It is striking too that, in the three years since Cameron became leader, every high profile political debate (grammar schools; spending plans; taxation) has seen the right make major gains.

Court politics makes events more important, as they famously were for pre-Thatcher Conservatives. But events do not determine the response taken to them. The financial crisis has seen a sharp shift rightwards towards fiscal conservatism, yet has also forced a more moral critique of capitalism's excesses than would have been articulated before it.

A pluralist balance of courtiers demonstrates open-mindedness and creates strong cross-pressures for inertia, ensuring that no argument is pursued towards a logical conclusion. If the mood music will remain much more progressive than the right would like, those anticipating a revolution in the welfare state or the education system, on the small state right, or a Tory redistributionist revolution, from its fledgling 'left', are likely to be disappointed.

Notice how little Margaret Thatcher shrunk the state, when she got up every morning with that ideological objective in mind. It would surely be prudentially sensible to anticipate that Cameron's Toryism could well leave many things pretty much as it found them.

That outcome would be pretty conservative. But that, after all, may well be the point.

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