There are times, I confess, when I wonder about politicians. They are a rum breed and it still seems possible to rise to quite elevated heights without possessing very much of an idea about anything. Consider the cabinet minister quoted in this Telegraph article:
Mr Cameron won the leadership promising to modernise the party, but one Cabinet minister said it should now “move on” to more “traditional” Conservative issues such as welfare reform and immigration control. “The ‘toxic’ issue has been neutralised,” the minister said. “Now we can move on to the red meat Conservative issues.”
Another minister said Mr Cameron should take to heart Lady Thatcher’s example and be prepared to risk unpopularity to force through the Government’s agenda.
Well, the second minister need have no worries on that front. As matters stand, Messrs Cameron and Osborne are quite accustomed to being unpopular. True, you might say, they have the worst of all worlds being unpopular and ineffective but that’s the way things crumble in times of sluggish economic growth. Hence, the proliferation of
eye-catching absurd initiviatives such as trading employment rights for shares.
This, in fact, is just the worst sort of stupid idea. Not because it is silly in itself (though it is) but because it reinforces the very ideas about the party that the leadership has spent years trying to dispel. It’s like the government is actually run by characters from a Harry Enfield sketch.
Moreover, you can, surely, only believe the Conservative party has successfully been “detoxified” if you never speak to anyone under the age of 40, outside the Home Counties. The party’s image has not been rehabilitated. Not entirely. Moreover, a “pivot” to “red meat” Toryism would only confirm the essential fakeness of the modernising makeover. It would be seen – quite correctly – as a mere ploy designed to hoodwink impressionable voters that the party had really changed.
Any such pivot, then, would essentially dismantle most of the arguments in favour of David Cameron’s leadership and upon which his leadership has been based. Perhaps the party is in a mood to make its leader look ridiculous but it might at least pause to contemplate the potential consequences of stripping the Prime Minister naked.
It cannot be pointed out too often that the parts of the country in which the Conservatives fared least well at the last election were Scotland and London. For very different reasons, the party remains an object of mistrust in the capital and north of the Tweed. These twin difficulties, however, also reveal the limits of the detoxification programme. The problem is not that the makeover has gone too far but that it is incomplete.
This isn’t a question of burying traditionalists, rather of making a case for a Conservatism that seems in touch with the modern world and actually likes the United Kingdom as it is, not as it once was.
It is still the case that many Tory policies or preferences are popular as abstract notions but that they become less popular once they are associated with the Conservative party. Welfare reform and spending cuts, for instance, are popular as general ideas but specific cuts or reforms tend to prove more controversial and difficult.
The problem is also one of trust. Too often the Tory party still seems obsessed by matters that most members of the public consider pretty trifling. Europe, again, is “unpopular” in general (and Britain is certainly more eurosceptic than it used to be) but most people are not obsessed by the subject and don’t want to hear politicians banging on about it all the time.
For that matter, many Tories seem obsessed with battles from the past. Consider Boris bashing the Trades Unions for instance. Well, that’s fine. But it is, in the end, a trivial matter. The Unions may be annoying but they are scarcely a mortal threat to this or any other government. It is a battle from the past and one cannot be refought except in ways that would make all the combatants appear ridiculous.
I mean, really, raising the spectre of militant unions these days is akin to insisting that the Castro brothers represent a clear and present danger to the United States of America. It’s an excellent way of seeming a nutter.
And there’s enough nutterdom at Westminster as there is without the government endorsing nutterdom or appointing more nutters to government positions.
Then again, it is all a matter of growth. If the economy picks up – and it may! – then many of these complaints will evaporate. If not then the ghastly prospect of Prime Minister Miliband looms.
Even so and while one understands why Tories are tempted to dust-off Margaret Thatcher’s greatest hits 2013 is not 1979 and asking What would Margaret do? is not necessarily, far less invariably, the way to discover a sensible answer to today’s problems. Nor, however, will “red meat” Conservatism win the day. That’s been tried and found wanting often enough already this century.