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Camp Cameron and the progressives

The extraordinary reaction to Speaker Bercow and his wife shows that Cameron and his allies only rea

How close to the progressive tradition are the New Tories? Steeped in it, if you take their word for it. It is, of course, all about what kind of progress you like. The Labour MP Bridget Prentice won my Thick of It award for earnest political daftness by declaring early this month that the boycotting of pink toys for girls was a "progressive" issue. If only it were that easy.

For Camp Cameron, stealing the idea of a progressive agenda from Labour began, as one insider puts it, "as a sort of joke" among the FoCs (Friends of Cameron). Progress was a brand long hijacked by the left: so why not simply assert that a revitalised centre-right party could, with more justification than a tired government, stand for social advances? Now, with the class of the top Cameroonians in the spotlight, it is taken a lot more seriously.

The set text of New Conservative thinking on this score is Greg Clark's and Jeremy Hunt's pamphlet Who's Progressive Now? - written in 2007, but now a running theme in the Tories' claim to be the party of the "progressive centre". Clark has not shone in opposition, but will be
a leading intellectual foot soldier under a Tory government. The shadow spokesman for energy and climate change is a comprehensive boy from Middlesbrough and a former member of the SDP, so a man of elastic allegiance.

Identikit modernisers

Jeremy Hunt is more archetypally Cameron-compliant: Charterhouse/Magdalen/Oxford University Conservative Association, staunchly pro-business and with a bee in his bonnet about the BBC, but also a smart, confident performer, destined for the cabinet. These two argue that Conservative pessimism has eclipsed another valuable, more relevant tradition of Tory reform and optimism - the patron saints William Wilberforce and Benjamin Disraeli.

One might quibble with some of the role models. By the Clark/Hunt logic, Ronald Reagan was a leading progressive (stop laughing at the back) and Margaret Thatcher is included for "drive and determination". These are qualities the Lady surely possessed - but that does not make her a progressive, just a tough leader.

Why exactly does David Cameron aspire to the mantle of progressive? Partly, it seems, to annoy Labour and make its claim to represent the modernisation of Britain seem outdated. Gordon Brown's dusty style has helped here.

Cameron needs, but lacks, an overarching theme to give shape to a wide-ranging set of sometimes contradictory views. He recently gave a personal blessing to Phillip "Red Tory" Blond by speaking at the launch of his new think tank, ResPublica. Blond has lambasted big business and the all-powerful state, and denounced free-market excesses, with no small measure of gobbledegook thrown in. Cam­eron's next public appearance, however, veered into an attack on health and safety excesses, close to the populism of old.

Is it progressive to oppose legislation to protect workers? Or to restore recognition of marriage in the tax system? There may be justifications for both, but it is very doubtful that they can be spun into a great modernising narrative.

Look, too, at the extraordinary reaction to Speaker Bercow and his outspoken missus, Sally. John Bercow used to be, as his wife charmingly put it to me, "a right-wing headbanger". He subsequently embraced the centre ground with such gusto that he was suspected of growing too close to Labour.

The response on the Tory benches to his subsequent rise has been howlingly negative and vindictive. So much for the big tent. When his wife confided in me that she wanted to become a Labour MP, a senior member of the Cameron team said that he hoped it would prod backbenchers to register a vote of no confidence in the Speaker when his job has to be confirmed in a new parliament. So much for the New Tory feminism. Another says, simply: "Bercow doesn't like us and we don't like him."

And yet the Speaker has adopted the gospel of progressive Tory thinking more than most and has been rigorous in pushing through the punitive Legg recommendations for expenses reclaims that Cameron wants adopted.

The truth is that Cameroonians only really like modernisers on their own terms, and made in their likeness. David Willetts discovered this when he was moved from his job as education spokesman for laying out the arguments of the leader's own declared position: that the party needed to move beyond support for grammar schools in order to widen opportunity in secondary education.

In fairness, I remember Cameron as having a rather impatient modernising streak long before it became a matter of pre-election positioning. He knew that the Hague/Howard-era Conservatives could not win by looking longingly over their shoulder at the past. He has been astute in finding buried in the Conservative undergrowth issues that have long been of concern to the party - such as conservation (read the green agenda) and a concern for the poor, which would be a central commitment of a future Tory government.

Grand designs

The main influence here remains Steve Hilton, the Tories' director of strategy. He is one of the few senior Conservatives who knows, from family experience, how precarious life chances are and hankers to use politics to do something about it. Cameron is in favour of a meritocracy - but it is hard for him to sound anything other than patrician about it. George Osborne, by contrast, is not very interested in causes such as social mobility at all. He takes a far more sceptical view than Hilton on how deliverable such grands projets are. The tension between these two is discreet but ever-present.

On schools, Michael Gove combines a progressive's desire to ameliorate a system that fails too many with an old-school conviction that the learning methods of his own youth are unquestionably the right ones for today.

Alas, in health, the area where an instinctive moderniser would love to pile into a bureaucratic, patchy and wasteful system, neither of the main parties now seems to have any desire to embrace reform at all.

I wonder how progressive the Tories will turn out to be in government, when the need to tease and usurp Labour is gone. That will be the test of the new Blue Progressives. Let's remind them that that's what they said they were when the time comes.

Anne McElvoy is political columnist for the London Evening Standard and a presenter of Radio 3's "Night Waves"

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus