Tuesday 3 March 2009

Are more than six Tories fully behind project Cameron?

Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome provides an interesting external eye on the Labour blogosphere, having spoken at the Progress conference on which Nick Anstead has reported.

This morning, he asks a different question: how many fully signed up Cameroons are there at the top of the Tory party?

This is in response to Jenni Russell's Guardian column, quoting a Tory insider saying that there were ten Tories fully signed up to Cameron, "but it's an important ten."

Montgomerie's answer is six : David Cameron, George Osborne, Steve Hilton, Edward Llewellyn, Oliver Letwin, Michael Gove.

For Russell, the thin roots of Cameronism in his own party means that progressives must ensure the Tory modernisers triumph over the forces of darkness on the party's right. (It is not, however, entirely clear how the Guardian's readers are to go about achieving this).

Moreover, both Russell and Montgomerie duck a key problem of the definition of terms. Personally, I suspect six is an underestimate. But how could we find out how many are fully signed up to the core Cameron project until we - and they - know what it is?

If it is the politics of doing what is necessary to maximise the chances of winning power, Cameron has most of his party with him. (Though some will have red lines on Europe, taxation and other issues, albeit usually voiced in advice about how best to win).

If the Cameron project is - as David Marquand believes - a rejection of Thatcherism then this might appeal more outside the party than within it.

Alternatively, if it is - as Labour often claims and some on the right hope - a brand decontamination exercise which can successfully rehabilitate the core principles of Thatcherism in gentler language, rooted in a right-wing analysis of a different way to challenge poverty, then it will have different champions and opponents.

And if it is Toryism red in tooth and claw, and the break-up of Tesco's monopoly and redistribution to the poor, then some of us will eat our modems.

Cameron's ability to appeal to both the New Right and Guardianistas depends on this constructive ambiguity - criticising Labour's record in a way that can appeal to those who would deepen its agenda and those who would scrap it; and articulating a critique of the state which takes care to always conflates and confuse issue of what the state should provide and what is should guarantee.

And so there is something in Russell's argument which does not depend on levels of optimism or pessimism about the next election. Shifting the centre of politcal gravity and entrenching change depends on how far political opponents are converted, as both Attlee and Thatcher knew.

As the Tories present themselves as a government in waiting, of course left, right, centre, the media and the unattached should scrutinise the Cameron project more seriously than has been done to date.

And, personally, like Russell, I would prefer Cameronism to be real, to be substantively progressive, and to win the argument inside the Conservative party too.

The truth is that we really don't know - and probably too that we aren't meant to find out until after May 2010 either.

Perhaps that is the real difference between Montgomerie's secret six and the rest of us.

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