Friday 24 April 2009

So cautious Cameron

There are now some more mixed messages coming out of the Tory frontbench over the new top rate of tax).

A prediction: David Cameron will sound much angrier over this weekend of the Tory Spring conference, about the 50p rate in particular, than the frontbench intended to on Wednesday night, when they wanted to quickly swallow it (as they had the 45p) and move on.

Another prediction: he will stop short of saying what he will do about it. The policy of acquiescence will remain in place, but the activists will feel either assured or at least hopeful by the tone that he does so unwillingly. Perhaps they will wrest a clear ‘aspiration’ to reverse it.

Even the blessed Boris, who is against this "crazy" measure, may be getting slightly dizzy as Paul Waugh notes that he admitted today that it "seems fairer, and of course it is" while setting out his opposition to it.

So a question: Can anybody please identify the most substantive issue on which David Cameron has sought to challenge and change the mind of his own party, without then backing down?

Look at what have been projected as substantive change. Does anybody think that admitting the Tories got apartheid wrong, were comfortable with gay rights, would like to have black and Asian Tory MPs, or acknowledging that climate change is happening were particularly difficult issues for the party in 2009? These are all issues where there is no opposition whatsoever inside the party, or where any such opinion is marginalised to the bonkers’ fringes.

And what has the leadership backed down on? A debate about grammar schools not being the answer on social mobility. The strategy of not opposing Labour spending plans. And they threw out a dark blue bone on inheritance tax at the top. Yet David Willetts claims that “The evidence has become stronger and stronger that inequality matters. That gradual accretion of the data shows that it is where you are relative to other people which matters enormously. I think that is an issue that my party had not registered, and that has now come home".

But do Tories believe that inequality itself matters. It would be nice if they did. But where is the evidence? I think this is another debate the leadership dips its toe into in think-tank and liberal media circles, but which it has consciously decided not to take out to the party itself.

Take Cameron’s conference speech last Autumn. He congratulated the party, telling members that they had already changed. But when and where did he ever challenge them to change?

There is a political case for Cameron’s caution: give as few hostages to fortune as possible. But the party's internal debates are in many ways considerably more like those of the Labour Party between 1987 and 1992 than those under Tony Blair: knowing that change is necessary to win, but being keen to change as little as possible.

My own reading of his masterclass in political ambiguity is not that he is an unreconstructed right-winger. He is not as committed to what the right wants as that implies; but nor does he wish to challenge it. My sense is that he is a pragmatist who intends to run a High Tory court.

But we are all still guessing and reading the runes.

The question remains: when will the real David Cameron stand up?

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