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4 June 2007

Armpits of the universe

Tara Hamilton-Miller on Dave's modernising woes

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

The Conservative rejuvenation agenda headed by chief strategist Steve Hilton, a pint-sized Rasputin, is going into phase two. Even the Brown camp admits that David Cameron’s grasp of the party, changing its fortunes in such a short period, has been an irritating triumph.

Gordon Brown’s former press secretary Charlie Whelan sees similarities in Cameron’s grand plan and Labour of the mid-Nineties. “It worked only because MPs were so fed up. There were a few rows with Blair, which made the party look progressive, but in the end they said very little. The Tories will do the same.” This theory is supported by a shadow minister. “I was elected in ’97 and until now haven’t had a sniff of government. I see the modernisation project as paramount. It will be so much easier to appear modern when Blair’s gone.”

In June, expect a number of Tory policy groups to report their findings, described as “an avalanche of ideas that will be drip-fed to the press”. The releases are being typed as I write, accompanied by the soundtrack “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor. The lyrics: “It’s the eye of the tiger,/It’s the cream of the fight/Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival . . .”

Webcameron fans have no need to worry that the reports will be overly dry. They will still be able to view footage of Dave filling the dishwasher, icing buns and pulling Somerfield trolleys out of the Thames. A Cameron aide says, if predictably: “David is aware that the party was seen as out of touch with ordinary people, and he is keen to show he really does care. Why else would he take such steps with the environment agenda? He wants to show that the party is not self-interested.”

At the heart of this strategy is the selection process for budding MPs. Cameron wrote only this past week: “No previous leader of the Conservatives has done as much to bust open the selection of parliamentary candidates to include more women [now over a third], and more black and minority ethnic candidates.”

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That much is true, but time and again, when local associations were forced to have a woman in the final round, they expressed displeasure. It is hardly surprising that attracting women to the green benches has not been easy. A member of the candidates team points to the frustrations: “John Maples [the man in charge of selection] sees himself as a Machiavellian fixer, but the reality is we are desperate for new women. There is panic in the candidates department and the real challenge will be how they fill the tail seats with good women. They are just not coming forward.”

Another team member says: “Some exceptional male candidates have been farmed off to less winnable seats. Pointless.”

A frustrated female candidate standing in the south-east admits that, shortly after her selection, she received two anonymous letters from constituents, one helpfully suggesting: “Why not reveal a bit more cleavage?” The other letter recommended: “Cover up. This is not a beauty contest.” Sleepless nights over what to do with her ample charms were not what she expected.

This is not Cameron’s fault – far from it. However, such anecdotes highlight what he has to work with, all contributing to the fact that Project Modernisation works only if your supporters modernise with you.

Princess power

The recent grammar schools debate was volatile and is hardly forgotten. But, unlike predictions at the time, it has yet to surface as his “Clause Four” moment. An aide says: “David’s not scared of ridicule – in fact, I’ve never seen him with such confidence. He rode the grammar schools fiasco, and if anything it has given him personal faith of just how strong he is.”

The reach-out policy continues with the Conservatives holding an Independence Ball this month. This ethnic equivalent of the infamous Black & White Ball will try to appeal to Asian movers and shakers. Cameron will attend and the shadow cabinet has been given a three-line whip to be there – an order that has produced the rather princessy response of, “What am I meant to wear?”

Party HQ is being dragged up to date, too. Much has been made of running a carbon-neutral office and a cycle-to-work scheme has been introduced. A press officer says excitably: “All mod cons in the girls’ loos now. We have been provided with organic, preservative-free hand cream and, inexplicably, roll-on deodorants to share.” Presumably for liberal Tory girls who don’t have a problem with their comrades’ armpits. Brave New World.