Ideologically uncertain, unsure of a political direction for the 21st century, its leader tarnished by a series of poor decisions – the Conservative Party really is in a mess. Just over two years away from a possible general election, it should be heading for another electoral disaster in the face of a Gordon Brown premiership founded on political experience and a sound economy. Instead, David Cameron is defying gravity.
Cameron should be in grave trouble after the events of recent weeks. But since it was revealed that the Tory leader had been less than candid about his use of cannabis, his popularity appears to have increased. The Conservatives’ eight-point poll lead would give them a slim majority at the next election, but what has Cameron done to deserve this?
His latest wheeze, of signing up his MEPs to the extreme Eurosceptic Movement for European Reform, is worthy of the craziest days of the Tory wilderness years. His only partners in this new “movement” are the Czech Civic Democrats, who founded their party in the very image of British-style Conservatism from which Cameron is supposed to be distancing himself (anti-Europe, anti-immigrant).
The mainstream centre-right French and German parties have poured scorn on the new groupuscule, with good reason. The Czech president and Civic Democrat founder, Václav Klaus, has been attacked for denying the existence of global warming. At the same time, his government, led by Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, has been criticised for failing to deal with discrimination against the country’s Roma minority. The European Court of Human Rights is investigating why a disproportionate number of Roma children have been sent to special schools for those with learning difficulties. Imagine how Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard would have been pilloried if they had forged such an alliance.
Cameron’s pledge to withdraw from the European Social Chapter, which guarantees paid holidays, maternity rights and minimum health and safety standards at work to British employees, provides yet another indication that he may not be quite as centrist as he seems.
These past weeks could have been torrid for the Tory leader if Labour had not been in such a state of self-lacerating panic. Cameron’s recent visit to Israel was less than sure-footed, with his criticism of Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem raising eyebrows. While the boss was away, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, was forced to clarify that policies such as tax breaks for married couples, a new system of border controls and drug treatment for addicts were not spending commitments.
Meanwhile, the contradictions in the Tory position on the use of the private sector and voluntary organisations in providing public services were exposed by his party’s opposition to legislation allowing increased private provision of services in the prison and probation systems.
Why has it been so easy for the Tories? The obvious answer is: because it has been so hard for the government. Although the police are also investigating the Tories in the cash-for-honours affair, no one has been arrested yet; although the Tories supported the war in Iraq, they can claim they were misled like everyone else by the way intelligence was distorted. In short, the Labour Party is in government and the Tory party is not.
The launch of the anti-Brownite 2020 Vision campaign by Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke helped save Cameron from a potentially humiliating series of headlines. The Milburn-Clarke initiative was seen as deeply hostile by Labour backbenchers, although many of the same individuals would agree with the two former cabinet ministers that the Chancellor has not yet shown himself open enough to new ideas. The ongoing investigation by the Charity Commission into the Smith Institute, a think-tank closely associated with the Chancellor, has further limited the ability of Brown and his circle to engage with the wider policy debate.
Labour faces a series of challenges in the weeks to come. Will it be able to rally around a Brown Budget that will severely limit public sector spending? It probably will. It is Brown’s last Budget as Chancellor and disloyalty will not go unnoticed.
It was once thought that the local elections and elections for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies would be seen as the final judgement on Tony Blair. But that is no longer the case. They will be the first serious test of party unity in extremis.
Then, barring an act of God, the real process of transition to a Brown government will begin. At this point, any dissenters might as well go away and set up their own party. They could call themselves the Social Democrats, in honour of the last time the party indulged in fratricidal bloodletting, thus permitting the Tories to become the party of power.