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12 May 2010

Is Cameron a 21st-century Disraeli?

Dave climbs the greasy pole.

By Jason Stamper

As David Cameron settles in to No 10, there are those who are already lining up to praise his tactics in his negotiations with the Lib Dems and with his own party, in the face of his failure to win an outright majority at the election.

John Strafford, of the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, told BBC News yesterday that Cameron had behaved like “a 21st-century Disraeli” in his negotiations with the Lib Dems. It echoes a piece Strafford wrote after the votes were counted: “David Cameron has the opportunity this week to embrace electoral reform and become the 21st-century Disraeli or end up as a footnote in history. The Conservatives have nothing to fear in coalition government.”

It’s not the first time Benjamin Disraeli’s memory has been revived by the Tories and their supporters when heaping praise on our new Prime Minister. In a piece for the Spectator in January, Peter Oborne wrote:

Cameron’s own political philosophy pre-dates Thatcher and, for that matter, Heath. It can be traced back to a purer school of Conservatism, which was first articulated by Burke, reached its apotheosis with Disraeli and Baldwin, and appeared to have died out when Macmillan left office in 1963. This kind of Conservatism sees itself as above class or faction and profoundly believes that it acts only in the national interest. This is why Cameron says again and again that he feels as profound a sense of responsibility for the poor and the unprivileged as New Labour claims to do.

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Meanwhile, back in 2008, in an article for the Guardian entitled “Benjamin Disraeli, my hero”, David Willetts, the then shadow secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, wrote:

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It was Disraeli who was responsible for three key themes of social responsibility, localism and pragmatism which, above all, explain the resurgence of the Conservative Party under David Cameron.

Yet while it is understandable that the Tories would want to evoke the memory of Disraeli, the popular Tory, socialite and novelist, in seeking to define what the Conservative Party under Cameron now stands for, Disraeli’s at times disconcerting attitude to party politics is also worthy of mention.

It was he who said, on becoming prime minister in 1868: “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.” Words that surely have just as much resonance for Cameron today, given the expenses scandal.

Furthermore, it was Disraeli — who converted to the Tory cause after failing to be elected as a Radical — who once said: “Toryism is worn out and I cannot condescend to be a Whig.”

It is unlikely that the Tories comparing Cameron to the Victorian-era leader would be quite so quick to remind readers of something else that Disraeli said: “A Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy.” We can only wonder what he would have thought of our new Lib-Con coalition. Not much, perhaps. “England,” he remarked on another occasion, “does not love coalitions.”

So, let’s see what Britain makes of this Lib-Con pact, and, indeed, of our modern-day Disraeli.

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