Cameron gives the Tories some welly

Cameron may be comfortable with his personal blend of retro and metro, but bridging such gaps within

They boast a designer gusset, lining snug enough for the frostiest winter and a £140 price tag. It seems inadequate to describe Peter Mandelson's new Le Chameau Vierzonord boots merely as wellies and downright impertinent to wonder if they've ever encountered actual mud. But perhaps His Lordship, who recently attended a country-house shoot hosted by the tycoon Nat Rothschild, is merely testing the zeitgeist. After all, someone must get to grips with what may turn out to be a profound shift in power between town and country next year: the rise of what the Economist once called a proper "muddy-wellies" Tory.

If he wins the election, David Cameron will be Britain's first real shire prime minister since Anthony Eden. After decades of townie rule (even John Major, he of the old maids bicycling through the mist, was a Brixton boy), tweedy revenge looms. What I never realised until I left my London life behind last month, moving out to live in Witney, Cameron's west Oxfordshire constituency, is how far the Notting Hill label obscures the rural side of him. Yet the country Cameron is essential to understanding tensions in progressive Conservatism.

Most weekends, the Camerons retreat to the hamlet of Dean, in a beautiful valley just too far north for Oxford's bohemian influence and not quite near enough to the Cotswolds and its big City spenders. Chickens scratch around driveways, but the honey-coloured stone houses would leave little change from half a million. Welly-wise, it's green Hunter country: authentically battered, reassuringly expensive.

A modern shire Tory

Cameron comes here to relax, think, grow vegetables - and hang out occasionally with the Oxfordshire set. He attended a recent birthday bash for Elisabeth (daughter of Rupert) Murdoch, who has a place near Blenheim, while friendly locals include Michael Heseltine and Jeremy Clarkson. It can all seem a little smugly insulated from reality - le Petit Trianon, but with Agas. In fact, a different reality intrudes on Cameron here. Most days are punctured by the rumble of military aircraft overhead, bound for Afghanistan: RAF Brize Norton, on the constituency's southern fringe, is the departure point for troops deploying to combat. The war is woven into the fabric of local life, impossible to forget. But what is also obvious out here is the huge gamble involved in making the military covenant a campaign issue. Should a Conservative administration find it can't fill the black hole in the defence budget either, the backlash would be deeply personal.

The other piece of the jigsaw that clicks into place here is Cameron's disputed environmentalism. The Greens beat Ukip in Witney at the last election, but the vibe here is less about abandoning the 4x4, more about composting and eating local (no chore when the Blur bassist Alex James churns out artisan cheeses just down the road and Witney's butchers do a roaring trade in local game). From here, Cameron looks like a modern variant of those shire Tories for whom conservatism and conservation were largely the same word, rooted in a romantic attachment to the land and its role in producing food.

Harder to unpick are the tangled intellectual threads that make up his intense distrust of the big state. But when Witney was badly flooded in 2007, Cameron was struck by the way local councillors pitched in, filling sandbags rather than standing back to organise. He still has greater faith in parochial government than in strategic regional bodies; for there is something about the distance - in geography and attitudes - between villages and the cities from which they are mostly run that foments rebellion and mistrust. It's the subversive thread in all that talk of devolving power to the grass roots.

It's simplistic to paint Cameron as purely a country mouse. He may have been raised in rural Berkshire, but the life he chose - City PR, marriage to a handbag designer - was unrepentantly urban. Just as class divided the Blair administration, the fault line in a Cameron government may be geography. On the face of it, Elizabeth Truss's selection battle in Norfolk last month was about sex. But beneath it ran a boiling resentment among provincial Tories over London's meddling in selections: Truss spelled a chance for a showdown between old-fashioned rural steadiness and what seems in Norfolk like flaky, anything-goes metropolitanism.

Retro and Metro

Cameron sided heavily with Truss, but it has cost him goodwill: the "Turnip Taliban" insults will not be forgotten at future flashpoints. And there are plenty ahead if Cameron wins, from rural housebuilding to high-speed rail links (the obvious route cuts through the Home Counties), village school closures and the fate of rural postal services under privatisation.

But the biggest challenge is not keeping the countryside happy, it's keeping town and country together. Cameron needs both suburban marginals and shire safe seats to get a majority, which may be why the Tory front bench keeps contradicting itself over repealing the hunting ban. Among the horsey set here, the ban symbolises what many regard as state interference in traditions London doesn't understand - a view with which Cameron instinctively sympathises. But he remains wary of making a legislative priority from a niche interest. Locals say that even in Witney's market towns there's no pro-hunt majority. That explains why the official line on the man who once spoke happily of riding to hounds and bagging "the odd pigeon" (he is actually an accomplished deerstalker) is that he hasn't hunted or shot for years.

Cameron may be comfortable with his personal blend of retro and metro, but bridging such gaps within his party will be tougher. Bridges, as any rural Cumbrian could testify, are surprisingly vulnerable to storms.

Gaby Hinsliff is former political editor of the Observer. She will be writing regularly for the NS

 

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