Responding to the Spectator

James Macintyre responds to the <a href="http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/3456486/responding-t

Why is it that attacking the Labour party in print is seen as fair game in the Westminster playground and common practice for “neutral” journalists, but dare to turn your fire on David Cameron's Conservative party and you are dismissed as a mad, foaming-at-the-mouth red under the bed?

That's the question I asked myself not for the first time as I was alerted – while printing off Cameron's latest speech on how to cut public spending - to the attack by the Spectator's political editor, Fraser Nelson on my article in this week's New Statesman scrutinising the extent of Tory policy reform.

For going against the conventional wisdom that Cameron has “modernised” the Tory party, and looking at the major policy areas with scepticism, I am accused of being “from the Planet Zog”, of the “hard-left” viewpoint that “anything short of nationalisation of the means of production is a capitalist plot”.

Well, I am glad Nelson raises nationalisation because the point I was trying to make was precisely that Cameron has failed in making any major change on a par with either Tony Blair's symbolic abolition of the nationalising “Clause IV”, or for that matter, with Neil Kinnock's spectacular expulsion of Militant in the 1980s. (My point is that Kenneth Clarke, on the other hand, would have made abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts the party's “Clause IV”, creating a compromise with the electorate of the sort that Cameron, and the unsackable George Osborne, have repeatedly said is not needed (we'll see).)

Instead, from the moment he emerged on the scene and wowed the media with a speech without notes in 2005, Cameron has been awarded the title “moderniser” for nothing more than a series of photo-opportunities.

Nelson, ever keen bravely to leap to the defence of the Tory leadership, disputes this, and – unlike during the radio appearance to which he refers – attempts to list some of the changes. Unfortunately, they make uncharacteristically lightweight reading:

His first and main claim (other than references to language and rhetoric changes which prove my point neatly) is that Cameron has “embraced the social justice agenda”; but substance to back this dramatic assurance there comes none. Forgive me if I sound like I'm from the “hard-left” but my understanding of social justice is that it involves wildly leftist concepts like mild redistribution of wealth; helping the poor, and so on (not, say, raising the inheritance tax threshold for the very rich).

Incidentally, I note that Nelson's blog sits next to another Spectator one by Peter Hoskin, entitled “The Tories are ramping up their spending cut rhetoric”. I hope Nelson wouldn't smear his colleague with the “hard-left” gag.

Nelson also denies that Cameron made a U-turn on grammar schools, despite the fact that his original plan of saying there will be no new ones under a Tory government was reversed, with Cameron appeasing his Tory critics, explicitly stating this was not a “Clause IV” moment and saying “I don't go around picking a fight with my party”. I am surprised Fraser, an assiduous Cameron-watcher, “missed” the U-turn story when it was in covered by the rest of the Tory press.

Nelson also ridicules my claim that Cameron is set to penalise single mothers – perhaps this is one of the “lies” he mysteriously refers to towards the end of his blog. He must, then, have missed the story that Cameron will reward through the tax system married couples, and middle class couples when one of those is wealthy enough to stay at home. These are not, I fancy, policies aimed at the single mother on a council estate in Hull.

As to Nelson's wacky claim that Cameron has softened the Tory message on immigrants, after the Tory leader has repeatedly used the populist Sun to lament the flooding of Britain by too many of them, and accuse the Government of “lying” over “uncontrolled”, “unsustainable” numbers, I am more surprised Nelson missed them, too, than I am that Cameron has taken such an approach given his masterminding of the notoriously racist “are you thinking what we're thinking” 2005 general election strategy.

But, hey, I'm not a great one for blogging – yet - and like Nelson, no doubt, I have one or two other things to do, though there is one point on which I would agree with Nelson: we have indeed not met. So, let me suggest we have a debate on the great Cameron hologram – a venue or platform of his choice. Fraser, I look forward to meeting you.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.