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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 Partly, it seems, to annoy Labour and make its claim to represent the modernisation of Britain seem outdated.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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide