If David Cameron only entered politics now, would he even be a Tory?

Imagine Cameron had a successful PR career before standing as an MP – there’s every chance he’d feel more comfortable as a Lib Dem than a Conservative. Which grass roots movement would be more upset?

 

Over the last two weeks I’ve been wrestling with a couple of questions. Trouble is, I only have an answer for the first. Perhaps you could all help me with the second?

My first poser is this. Let’s imagine that David Cameron had not gone into politics when he did. Entranced by the magical world of PR, he eschewed the chance to be an MP to pursue a career in the media, but now, 20 years on and full of regret, he decided he would like to give it another go. Which party would he join?

Well, according to Conservative Home the achievements the current government should be most proud of – and therefore presumably most attractive to a prospective new recruit – are the Equal Marriage Act, protecting the International Aid budget and raising the income tax threshold to £10,000. You don’t have to be much of a student of politics to know that they are three core Liberal Democrat policies – and the comment section of the Conservative Home article would suggest that the Tory grass roots don’t have much time for them. But as the Tory party is now furiously laying claim to them, presumably Cameron is in fact, quite keen…

Then you think about the things David Cameron first cared about when he became Conservative leader – you remember, when he wanted everyone to hug a hoodie or a husky, when (on his election) Norman Tebbit described him as wanting to build a “New Modern Compassionate Green Globally Aware Party” (it wasn’t a compliment) and he ditched the Tory Torch for an oak tree . And you look at the Tory party now – pulled rightward by UKIP, anti wind farms, demanding marriage tax breaks and reductions in inheritance tax, – and you wonder how comfortable Cameron feels inside the party he leads. It’s not really the vision he started with, is it?

And now he must cast a glance at the Lib Dems – who originated those policies the Tory party now claims as their proudest achievement. Who remain passionate about the Green agenda Cameron once wanted to claim as his own . Whose leadership (much to the chagrin of the Lib Dem grass roots) appear to support all sorts of policies that Cameron apparently also  feels comfortable with, from Secret Courts to Press Regulation to Immigration.

And you wonder if the David Cameron who joined the Tories in his twenties would now look at the Lib Dems and the Tories, and find, perhaps to his surprise, that in fact he had rather more in common with the former than the latter.

Which brings me on to my second question, to which I have no answer. If indeed it is true that the current Conservative Prime Minister would today feel more comfortable in the Lib Dems than in his own party, who should be more alarmed about that fact – the Tory membership, or the Lib Dem grassroots?

 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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