The end of Dave

If Cameron loses the election, his modernisation of the Conservatives will be deemed a failure and h

David Cameron's crime was that he expected to win. Some would go further and say that from every pore he exuded a belief that he was entitled to win. Either way, beyond him winning, what has been the point of the Tory campaign? What real changes are on offer in return for swapping Labour centrists for Tory centrists?

Cameron spent most of the last parliament obliging Tories to support the Labour spending plans he claimed, by the end of it, had wrecked Britain. If this is change, it requires a different electorate to see it. It also requires an electorate that hadn't come to the conclusion that the Labour/Tory duopoly deserved a monopoly of blame for the expenses scandal. Believing his own spin that he had "handled" expenses, Cameron has spent the general election campaign flailing from one panicked measure to another, reaching the nadir with his casual proposal to rip up the constitution and have, in effect, directly elected prime ministers. Others will tell you how it came to this. Let's just consider what will likely come of it.

Mods and shockers

One thing Cameron's failure will do is kill off the myth that being right-wing has lost the Tory party four elections in a row. Establishing this "fact" was a triumph for the Tory modernisers. Having it believed by anyone required an acceptance that John Major ran a furiously right-wing government; that William Hague, hemmed in by the shadow chancellor Michael Portillo and the shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude, was even more so; and that Michael Howard, far from being the man who patronised Cameron to the extent of having him write his manifesto, was a traditionalist whom other trads just couldn't bring themselves to admit as such. Doubtless there are people who will always think that this was just so; but even they won't be able to deny that Cameron ran as Cameron, and if he loses, an argument will therefore have been settled.

What happens next will also illustrate the difference between the Tory right and the Labour left, and also between the Tory right in internal opposition and the way Tory mods behaved out of power. Unlike too many socialist purists in Labour civil wars past, traditional Tories have wanted their party to win, even under a leader such as Cameron, who openly despised them. Indeed, it will be precisely his taking us to needless defeat that will be fatal. In victory, he would have been forgiven everything. In defeat he won't be forgiven anything.

But just consider how the right has behaved since Cameron became leader: it has stayed quiet and it hasn't caused trouble. William Hague has only to look across the shadow cabinet table to see some of the moderates who caused him the most torment when he was Tory leader.

One myth that has already fallen by the wayside was the comforting fable that leadership loyalists reached for during Cameron's most un-Blair-like dips in the polls in years gone by: "If only David was on the telly more, then we'd get back to where we should be." Cameron has never had more television exposure than the debates he idiotically pushed for, and after each one his support has fallen.

Another myth was that of Cool Hand Dave, the imperturbable leader, whose response to the crisis mounting inside Central Office since the New Year has been to abandon responsibility for taking key decisions to underlings such as Andy Coulson or Steve Hilton. And now, doing everything the mods preached against others doing - not least flip-flops and last-minute "new" policies unveiled during general election campaigns - Cameron confronts Labour and refuses to get close to 40 per cent.

Unless the parliamentary arithmetic abso­lutely obliges it, only Tory fantasists can seriously claim that the Liberals will choose us over Labour. Every policy Nick Clegg would wish to accomplish in office is more readily delivered by Labour, and every second spent in coalition with the Tories would be another vote subtracted from the 2010 Liberal pile and added to Labour's for 2014.

What lessons can and should be learned? For a start, obsessions have no place in the programme of a party serious about power. One clear-cut example was elected police chiefs. Where was the polling that said the public wanted policemen replaced with politicians? Another area where polling was thrown to the wind was foreign policy. Whatever the case for an independent deterrent, talking about a war Britain doesn't need to have with China is not the way to justify it.

Balls up

Then there were the horrendous, unforgivable failures over education policy: the one area where Labour's malevolent, anti-achievement incompetence should have gifted open goal after open goal. Instead it amounted to nothing for the party. Labour's Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, is just about the most off-putting performer in the cabinet, but he has proved far from the serial liability he should have been. Our maddeningly incomplete policy on schools squandered the single best opportunity, after the economy, that we had. Whether it was an unsellable policy, or merely mis-sold, the lack of traction has been one of the most dismal defects of the entire Tory campaign.

At this point, I should be honest and say I never realised Clegg had it in him to change political history. I always thought he was a bit of a wet fish, whose Cameron-lite tendencies would leave the Lib Dems stranded.

But has Clegg truly been the decisive factor? Cameron has led the opposition that has opposed least in history. He was a fool to think the public would not pick up on this. Should Cameron contrive to lose the unlosable election on 6 May, no one can stop William Hague from becoming leader again. And this time, he won't have to face a fifth column.

Christopher Montgomery ran A Better Choice, the campaign that stopped Michael Howard from disenfranchising grass-roots Tories in leadership elections.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.