Will Britain buy the Tory make-over?

Push me, pull me. Our politicians, it seems, get there in the end. The new Labour legend has it that Tony Blair persuaded his party, after long years of denial, that it had much to learn from Margaret Thatcher. Now, as the Conservatives prepare for their first real relaunch, they have taken to worshipping at the altar of the man who has enjoyed a decade of political hegemony.

The race for the Tory leadership has excited the rarefied inhabitants of Westminster village. The intrigues of the voting system are pored over. But, just as during the previous three hapless contests, in 1997, 2001 and 2003, politicians and journalists alike have greater difficulty assessing how the results affect the lives of ordinary inhabitants - if at all.

This time, for the first time, it may just matter, particularly if David Cameron wins the run-off for the Tory members' vote. And yet those very same people who have invented the Cameron phenomenon - journalists and politicians working once again in harmony - are applying old lessons to the exigencies of the present. They are not wholly wrong in doing so. Some of these lessons will stand the test of time. The Conservatives are, for example, learning that socially Britain has moved on; that a party whose public face at conference is predominantly septuagenarian, male and white is not representative of the country at large, and that a language of resentment, judgementalism and narrow nationalism alienates. These embarrassingly obvious conclusions fall under the trite mantra of modernisation.

This slogan, in common with many of those espousing it, has come to mean everything and nothing: a political blancmange, a lack of intellectual rigour and ideals, an emptiness conveyed with conviction and charisma. For all his denials, Cameron styles himself as the next-generation Blair.

Will the British public buy any of it? The age factor works both ways. By rejecting William Hague at the 2001 general election, voters demonstrated that youth is not everything - being extreme and bald didn't help his cause. The posh factor does not help Cameron, but then again it didn't work particularly against Blair, and we are told we are all beyond that kind of thing now. The experience factor also works both ways. Cameron carries none of the associations with Tory governments past, but then again nobody knows what he stands for.

The very question that was posed of the Prime Minister in the early years (before Iraq changed everything) should be asked of his spiritual successor: "What is the point of David Cameron?" Is there anything to him beyond an inoffensive appearance and an instinct to avoid his party's mistakes? In order to answer these questions the new- generation Tories would do well to show that they have moved on not only from Thatcher's belligerence but also from Blair's hollowness.

They will need to be clear about where they stand. Where, at a time of economic slowdown, do they stand on tax cuts? At what point would they give up on universal state provision of health and education? Beyond the easy rhetoric of opposition, how far would they defend civil liberties against a terrorist threat? And what would they do the next time a US president beat the drums of war? Lest it be forgotten: with the exception of the defeated candidate Kenneth Clarke and a few of his allies, the Tories failed lamentably to hold Blair to account over Iraq.

For Gordon Brown - that other successor, but not the one to Blair's liking - any Conservative revival presents a challenge and an opportunity. The three main parties would, perhaps more clearly than ever, be fighting for much of the same centre ground. And yet, for the first time since Labour took power in 1997, the administration would be presented with a credible force against which to define itself - and to enthuse its supporters. Brown, the older man, would be fighting against the laws of political cycles. Familiarity would be pitched against novelty, so the onus would be at least as much on Labour to develop a fresh appeal.

In this quest for new ideas, there may be cause for modest excitement. We at the New Statesman will play our part in seeking to create a truly progressive politic.

Brits in space

A ripple of approval passes across the country as the Royal Astronomical Society declares that the time has come for the government to drop its petty resistance to putting British people into space. Robots, the RAS rightly points out, may be cheaper but they lack initiative, and above all they are dull. No child was ever inspired to study the great Out There by a jumped-up dishwasher in orbit. Human beings it must be, and not just any old British human beings, for by the same inspirational logic we need doughty Captain Kirks in space and not soulless Spocks. Perhaps the public should have a say in this important matter. We could have a contest, and a vote. Some informed group should invite applications and, after hearing what the candidates have to offer, trim them down, by a process of elimination, to the two best candidates. Then a wider public could cast the final vote. What better way to pick a winner?

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The debt pandemic