Why David Cameron might be even more conservative than anyone thought

When making a speech, it pays to be more like the referee than the flashy star player.

The importance of party conference speeches – such as the one David Cameron delivered from Manchester on Wednesday 2 October – is vastly overrated. They are built up for weeks but forgotten in minutes. Perhaps the wisest speeches should be designed that way. There are dangers in a speech that is rapturously received. It can inflate expectations against which the leader is then harshly judged. A conference speech is like a low, electrified hurdle: as long as you don’t crash headlong into the voltage, it doesn’t much matter how high you leap. It is sometimes better to jump the obstacle with restrained economy and a lack of fuss, implying that there are more important things to be getting on with. A muted success, paradoxically, can leave a leader better positioned than a barnstorming triumph.

I learned this lesson the hard way. When I was captain of Middlesex, the club hierarchy made use of how I didn’t mind giving speeches to large audiences. They wheeled me out at forums and AGMs, encouraging me to “gee up the members” and “give everyone a lift”.

One season, as often happens in sport, the (successful) AGM was followed by a moderate run of early-season results. I was surprised to find my job instantly under threat. A senior club official explained why: “You were so confident and optimistic at the AGM that everyone left thinking we were going to have a spectacular season. Then it didn’t happen straight away.” A good speech had weakened my long-term position.

The point is that the AGM was not the real cricket season, just as the party conference is not real government. The AGM was just something that I had to negotiate and survive before moving on to my real job, which was to win cricket matches. If I’d been shrewder, I would have known that unflashy competence is sometimes the best you can hope for. It demands an unusual kind of bravery for a politician to behave like that. They are constantly pressured to articulate a grand vision. “The blandness of our pygmy politicians,” a recent feature in the Sunday Times complained, “reflects . . . an age devoid of big ideas.” An accompanying illustration portrayed David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg cowering in the shadow of Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, whose faces were carved into a British version of Mount Rushmore.

The cult of heroic personality fits neatly with the demands of the modern news cycle. The media nurture the idea of politicians as football managers: executive overlords with a constant and easily defined purpose, governed by stopwatch timekeeping and answerable to an expectant crowd. Will he produce a good speech/performance at the conference/cup final? How many more defeats can he survive? It is conveniently dramatic to imagine politics as a never-ending football season, punctuated by a series of contests that can be clearly categorised in terms of victory or defeat.

Yet the image of dazzling individual performances on big-match occasions doesn’t accurately describe politics – let alone government. Of all Cameron’s speeches, the idea that has stayed with me most clearly is the one that I like the least: last year’s conference refrain about “the global race”. Many pundits loved it for its catchy simplicity, its sense of a nation metaphorically called to arms. I thought it sounded like a soundbite cooked up during a conversation between a focus group pollster and a postgraduate studying for a Master’s in international relations.

In his essay “On Being Conservative”, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott explicitly warned conservative politicians against presenting an overarching, simplistic solution to every problem. The adolescent attraction of heroic leadership, Oakeshott argued, was intrinsically unconservative.

Oakeshott described what he called “the conservative disposition” as the ability to grasp “the inventiveness, the changefulness, the absence of any large design”. Oakeshott’s ideal conservative politician was suspicious of the “jump to glory style of politics in which governing is understood as a perpetual takeover bid for the purchase of the resources of human energy in order to concentrate them in a single direction”.

Far from hoping that the conservative politician would aspire to be a flashy star player, Oakeshott wanted him to have more in common with the referee – “strong, alert, resolute, economical and neither capricious nor overactive”, and careful to avoid “always blowing his whistle”.

Instead of setting the agenda, he holds the right balance; in place of vision, he seeks informal compromise; far from using logical arguments to pursue utopia, he has a nonrational grasp of his particular era and its demands. These are the features of an Oakeshottian conservative. “What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognises in himself as rational prudence . . . He is disposed to indicate assent or dissent, not in absolute, but in graduated terms.”

But this version of conservative politics clearly does not easily lend itself to a rousing speech at a party conference. After all, when did a referee ever make a great story, unless, that is, he’d made a huge blunder?

We are conditioned to think that political leaders must approach conference as an opportunity to articulate a catchy idea. I’m not so sure. Ed Miliband certainly captured the news cycle with his promise to freeze energy bills but it remains to be seen whether he will end up grateful that the idea found traction. There is an art in avoiding hostages to fortune and much to be said for getting through the conference season without resorting to picking a “big idea” out of thin air.

David Cameron is often criticised from the right flank of his party for not being conservative enough. Ironically, he may be more conservative than even his detractors would think.

David Cameron addresses delegates at the annual Conservative Party Conference. Image: Getty

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.