Tuesday 25 January 2011

Let Cameron be Cameron (but does he want to be?)

You may remember a The Thick of It episode where the hapless minister's aides cut to the chase and conduct "very focused" one woman focus groups to capture the authentic voice of middle England. The enconiums this past week to fallen spin doctor and ex-redtop editor Andy Coulson often risked blending satire and political reality.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson has been among those to suggest his primary importance was as David Cameron's main link to the real world. ("If the Tories really needed a wealthy newspaper editor with a modest background to tell them how the majority of people in Brtain live, they’ve got bigger problems than needing a new Director of Comms", as Hopi Sen blogged in response).

This is just one way in which a decision about replacing an key member of the Downing Street staff is now viewed as also representing a potentially significant political choice about the direction of the government and David Cameron's leadership of it. PoliticsHome editor Paul Waugh tweeted that "With Coulson gone, the Ying/Yang (Essex man/Cameroon) balance in No.10 has gone too". Waugh's phrase could well catch on because it captures a central feature of Cameronism.

On occasions like this, the West Wing-style call naturally goes up "Let Cameron be Cameron".

Yet this depends on a prior decision about who David Cameron wants to be.

Steve Hilton's David Cameron - the Cameron of the Cameroons - would select the initial favourite for the role, former Independent executive Ian Birrell

But this seems to me unlikely.

The case for appointing Birrell is that it could prove a step towards resolving the strategic ambiguities of Cameronism.

For David Cameron, I rather suspect that would the case against the appointment too.

The case for Birrell is that he has both good senior media experience, a strong personal relationship with the PM, and has played a political role seeking to define his political agenda as the Tory leader's pre-election speechwriter, including trying to define that elusive Big Society agenda. The cerebral Birrell is broadly respected, including among many of those who disagree with him on the right, as well as in the liberal media.

By background and inclination, Birrell appears much more of a Cameron ally and personal friend rather than a member of the Tory tribe. It seems unlikely that he would work for any other Tory leader. Birrell's well argued Evening Standard polemic in November challenging the government's immigration cap as "nonsense" perhaps captures an instinctive cultural liberalism, which goes beyond the issue of immigration itself. Birrell is a member of the liberal tribe who think New Labour was too restrictive on immigration, not the Tory tribe which thinks the opposite.

The broader issues of political strategy at play in this choice are well captured by Birrell's FT column on January 5th, arguing that "the decontamination of the Tory brand remains the central issue for the party", challenging the right's dissatisfaction with the Coalition, and Tim Montgomerie's polite 'fisking' of this column for ConservativeHome. Birrell's argument is essentially that a substantive "big society" Cameronism would have to be emphasise "change" more, including being visibly less Tory. This is rejected by those whose critique of Cameronism is that its aversion to traditional Toryism left voters unclear as to what, if anything, he really stands for.

So would Cameron choose to have two outriders for liberal Cameronism at the heart of his political and media operation? Perhaps. But the odds feel to me stronger that Cameron's instinct will be to maintain the ambiguity about the central direction of his party leadership and government, and so to continue with the project of Ying and Yang Cameronism.

In other words, it is not clear that David Cameron agrees with the Cameroons, not much more than half the time anyway.

Rather, Cameron has maintained a plural court, where he always takes care never to play favourites or choose decisively between exotic new hybrids of red and green Tory, and the dominant strain of true blue Thatcherites. After five years as leader, it is striking how examples there are of Cameron challenging his own party on any issues of substance, beyond stressing the need for "change" in the public presentation and face of the party.

This was reflected in the leader's somewhat hands-off approach to the central questions over his election campaign, which Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley relate in their British General Election of 2010, captured in that now infamous tieless Cameron poster launch with which the oppositio opened the election year, under the compendium slogan "We can't go on like this. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS".

The curious juxtaposition of the two phrases reflected the poster's genesis. Originating from a committee in which there was no agreement about the key message, it was an uneasy compromise between two viewpoints. The slogan was what car mechanics call a cut-and-shut job, bolting together two different phrases, each favoured by a different member of the committtee ...

A feature of the Conservative campaign team was that Osborne, Hilton and Coulson, all strong-minded individuals, had their own, not necessarily rival, views of the way ahead. Osborne regarded himself as a chair, rather than the director of the group. Until January 2010, they had looked to Cameron to adjudicate when there were differences of view between the main figures. But the decision was then taken that Cameron should stand back from day-to-day involvement. A result was a lack of direction - and the confusion over the poster was an outcome of this failure. ... The fundamental strategic issue of how to approach the election campaign was not resolved.

Continuing with Cameron's Ying and Yang strategy of constructive ambiguity points more to another red-top voice (or a broadcast specialist) than somebody from a liberal broadsheet becoming the new director of government communications. If Birrell were to come in, or a broadcaster appointed, I would expect there to be some "balancing" move such as beefing up the political side of Downing Street with a notably Tory figure.

The intuitive political case for this ambiguity is the "broad tent" - or "the politics of and" in which Cameron can be both moderniser and traditionalist, and clean up.

That sounds good. The case against that theory is that it doesn't seem to have worked, though the much over-estimated Cameron was lucky that so many people were so slow to notice.

Cameron won only 36% of the vote, because key groups of voters didn't believe the Tories had changed.

In power, the government is understood by the public to be almost exclusively about the "cuts" agenda - and the Big Society language is rather too intangible to counter this.

Even forming a Coalition with the LibDems risks not making an impact. Because the majority perception is that the LibDems are supporting a Tory-led agenda, Nick Clegg doesn't seem to be enough to stop them being the "same old Tories". Indeed, the polls suggest that the Coalition has had, to date, a much greater (negative) impact on contaminating the LibDem brand with the somewhat toxic Tory one and a much milder (positive) contribution to detoxifying the Tories.

There seems to be an awareness of this inside government, as articulated by a senior Tory quoted by Rachel Sylvester in her Times column (£) this morning, which questions the coherence of the tactic of Coulson bringing balance by, as Sylvester puts it, "putting red-top grit into the “red Tory” oyster"

“Intellectually there’s a vacuum,” says one senior Tory. “What is our communication strategy? Is it making us tough or tender, is it promoting long-term goals or short-term tabloid management? Steve Hilton does the gesture stuff, Andy Coulson does the day-to-day, but what is the philosophical direction of the Government? No one has asked, let alone answered, that question. On health, education, localism and immigration the message is a muddle.”

If Cameronism is a substantive project of changing the British centre-right, rather than simply a respray job seeking to rehabilitate the traditional Tory case, then it might be time to define it more clearly.

Five years in, another decision not to do so may prove just as important.

Let Cameron be Cameron.

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