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13 September 2007

A new background noise

Only when he finds the key to quality of life will Dave finally be able to define Cameronism

By Tara Hamilton-Miller

The problem, remarked one Conservative MP, is that “even the title of the report is misleading”. He was referring to publication of his party’s Quality of Life report, the last in a series of six papers designed to set out a new vision. He was less than impressed, however. “My constituents are very aware what would improve their everyday lives – and environmental issues are not their main concern.”

When David Cameron first adopted the notion of “quality of life” as a political issue in September 2005, he made a crowd-pleasing speech defining it as: high-performing local schools, available GPs and tackling crime-riddled urban areas. The crossover to strictly environmental issues has had a mixed reaction from his MPs.

Many are uncomfortable with the rhetoric, and some with the substance, such as the idea of replacing GDP as a major indicator with a Happy Planet Index. One younger shadow secretary of state visibly blushed when asked about the idea of such an index. Having not read the report, he thought it was a pop group that Dave had downloaded. A press officer has found the phrase so buttock-clenchingly intolerable that he mumbles “HPI” under his breath. He is relieved that so far he has not been asked to explain what it means.

One south-east MP, who is clinging on to a small majority, points to the publicity generated by the possibility of scrapping free parking at supermarkets: “This is not Notting Hill. There are very few pop-into shops in my constituency. It is not uncommon for my constituents to use the supermarket three times a week and they have every right to do so without being financially clobbered. Already I have been approached, predominantly by mothers who find the pros pect far more worrying than any green plane tax, because they see their supermarket trip as an absolute necessity.”

Making sense of the various policy group recommendations is proving a tricky business for party officials. What message do they send voters? What is modern conservatism? And, more to the point, who is the face of modern conservatism? Zac Goldsmith or the shadow secretary of state for the environment? Low taxes or high taxes, pro-marriage or pro-single parents, pro-local government or pro-local people? Key to this is: what is Cameronism?

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A Cameron-supporting backbencher says that the reports have sent contradictory signals. “They may appeal to different groups and build a coalition but, equally, they may sow seeds of doubt about what we stand for and what our party represents. I don’t know what Cameron will reject and what he will champion, when I am canvassing on doorsteps. The lack of clarity is posing problems.”

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Now that the groups are being disbanded, it is up to Cameron and his shadow cabinet to trawl through and cherry-pick ideas for a winning manifesto. One shadow minister comments: “Some reports are so much more thoroughly researched than others. The likes of Nick Herbert’s crime and policing paper was rich, good-quality material. However, the schools, university and housing reports are slightly vague in areas.”

One somewhat more gung-ho strategist of Cameron’s is dismissive of the reports. The aim, he says, should be confined to finding two or three specific ideas that will seduce the voter: “I’m looking for a few emblematic policies that neatly define David’s Conservatism. The key to a successful campaign, like Thatcher in ’79 and Blair in ’97, is not to get bogged down in a blizzard of detail.” Whether Cameron knows that this one-man campaign has decided to do his own thing is anyone’s guess.

Meanwhile, the appointment of James O’Shaughnessy as director of research and policy is significant. O’Shaughnessy has come from the think tank Policy Exchange, producing some of its most interesting ideas. Historically, heads of research have been comfortable with their policy-wonk geek persona. O’Shaughnessy is different. He understands the importance of the media. One of his first tasks will be to see how the research and press departments can work better as a team. One area he will fine-tune, having specialised in public services, is education and welfare.

Exceptionally dashing, O’Shaughnessy is also a DJ, spinning decks in Clapham’s trendier bars. “My memory of the research department working best is when small-scale stories and campaigns are generating debate,” he says. “It’s not necessarily the big stuff that wins votes and turns people on. It’s the background noise.” A truly modern Conservative.