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The huskies are long gone, so Cameron needs a new big moment

The PM must define himself in a way that pulls him closer to blue-collar Britain.

Every recent Tory prime minister has used a big moment to introduce themselves to the electorate. In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher presented herself as the nation’s housewife. Appearing in front of the TV cameras carrying a shopping basket, she talked about how everyday household goods were becoming more and more expensive. The warning from the grocer’s daughter concerned the hottest political issue of the day – inflation.

While Thatcher chose a shopping basket to draw herself towards ordinary families, John Major chose a soapbox. At the start of the 1992 general election he stood on his little wooden crate in the middle of sometimes hostile crowds. It was a flattering contrast to Neil Kinnock’s glitzy election rallies. The down-to-earth message was reinforced by a very powerful election broadcast. We saw Major revisiting the haunts of his upbringing in Brixton, buying tomatoes from the local market and mixing with multi-ethnic Londoners. Here was a Tory leader who loved not just an abstract idea of Britain but its people, too – all of its people.

David Cameron chose a very different defining moment. It aimed for the broadsheet rather than the tabloid market and was more Guardian than Telegraph in style. He went to Norway and a melting glacier. The photograph of him being pulled by huskies across an icy landscape was the image his handlers wanted. Climate change was a critical issue of our age, Cameron said, as he invited Britain to “vote blue and go green”. Fruit smoothies were served at Tory conferences. Conservative employees were given bikes to get from their Millbank HQ to parliament. Al Gore was invited to address Tory MPs.

Top notes

Climate change was just one of the metrosexual issues that Cameron chose to suggest that the Conservative Party had changed. More women candidates and the concept of the “big society” were two others. The risk for Cameron was always that he wouldn’t be as committed to these changes as he needed to be and that he would run the risk of Tory modernisation appearing shallow and inauthentic. And so it has come to pass. Cameron has in fact played fast and loose with each of his great change factors.

He hasn’t given one big speech on climate change since entering No 10 in May 2010. On women candidates, progress has been mixed. Theresa May has been a successful Home Secretary and Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, may go to the very top of the party. Other Tory female ministers, however, have struggled. On the big society there has been no breakthrough with the public. Tory activists find it useless on the doorstep. No wonder No 10 hardly mentions its big idea any more.

Does any of this matter? Will climate change or the big society or the number of women in the government be on more than a handful of voters’ minds when they next enter the polling booth? Downing Street’s belief is that Cameron will be re-elected if he manages the economy reasonably well, if the NHS stays out of the headlines and if voters are frightened of or unconvinced by Ed Miliband.

My fear is that this won’t be enough. Even if the Miliband brand is weak, the Labour brand is strong. Labour is still seen as the party of social justice while the Tories are struggling to assert their historical advantage as the party of economic competence. Worse, the right is splitting at a time when the left is uniting behind Labour. The formation of the coalition has prompted left-leaning supporters of Nick Clegg’s party to join the Labour column, while right-leaning Tories have drifted towards the UK Independence Party. I’d put big money on the Cable wing of the Liberal Democrats choosing a coalition with Labour if the next election results in another hung parliament.

The Conservative Party can emerge stronger from the ashes of the coalition in 2015 but the offering has to be consistent with the high points of Cameron’s time at No 10. Education and welfare are the two stand-out strengths. In Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, the Prime Min­ister has two of the most outstanding social reformers of our time. It would have been far-fetched to think of the Tories as the party of social reform before Cameron, but no longer. All the ingredients are there. They just need to be knitted together.

IDS is refashioning the welfare state so that work always pays more than benefits. He is reforming pensions so that the burden that faces the next generation of workers is not so impossible that they flee to less taxed nations. He is taking giant steps towards fashioning a welfare state that is focused on caring for the most deserving – the very young, the old, the sick and the severely disabled.

Gove, meanwhile, is pursuing his reforms to education. Over recent decades, the UK has slid down the international education league tables even faster than Leeds United have fallen behind in football. Central to Gove’s purpose is the restoration of honesty and ambition to the exams system.

Clear blue lines

Cameron needs a new defining image in time for the next election and, like those chosen by Thatcher and Major, it must pull him closer to blue-collar Britain.

The content of his welfare speech on 25 June didn’t seem thought through. It appeared to have more to do with bolstering internal party morale at a difficult time than with advancing a new vision of what British society might look like. And yet, buried beneath the politics, there is a big modernising idea that could stand the test of time.

The left’s vision of the good society has long been clear: Labour will build the New Jerusa­lem by pouring ever more taxpayers’ money into the welfare state. In this age of austerity, that vision has reached the end of the road. In its place could be a Tory vision of social progress built on traditional schooling, incentives to choose work rather than welfare and, I would add, strong families. A Conservative Party that can combine this social message with economic competence might even start winning elections again.

Tim Montgomerie is the editor of the ConservativeHome website

Tim Montgomerie is the editor of the ConservativeHome website.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation