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The façade cracks

David Cameron is widely accepted as a “moderniser” and as having heralded a new kind of Conservatism. But are these changes quite so deep as he would have us believe?

When, in August, Peter Mandelson found himself at the same restaurant – the Taverna Agni, on the Greek island of Corfu – as the shadow chancellor George Osborne, the unlikely meeting was “by chance, not by choice”. Contrary to reports, the dinner, with 20 others, did not involve Mandelson “pouring poison” about Gordon Brown into Osborne’s ear (though Osborne attacked certain senior Tories, according to some of those present). Instead, the two politicians, who had spent little time together before, discussed approaches to effecting and managing change in their respective parties.

Unlike Osborne, who has spoken to several journalists about the dinner since then, Mandelson is reluctant to reveal the substance of what he considers to be a private conversation. But in his interview with the New Statesman last week he did give a hint of his verdict. “[The Tories] have managed to change their image rather quickly . . . but I don’t think they have done the equivalent major changes [as we did] and I don’t think they have carried the party entirely with them.”

Suddenly, at the end of the party conference season and following a dramatic reshuffle in which, against the backdrop of the worst economic crisis in living memory, Gordon Brown has partially re-established his authority, it is the Conservatives rather than Labour who are under pressure for the first time in more than a year. “The tide may be turning,” one senior Tory conceded this week. “I used to think we were definitely going to win; now it is less clear.”

Osborne has long been keen to portray himself as a moderniser within the Conservative Party, in the image of the young Mandelson. Yet he has always maintained, along with David Cameron, that the Tories do not need “a Clause Four moment” comparable to when Tony Blair symbolically abolished Labour’s commitment to nationalisation to prove to the electorate the party had changed and was ready to govern. Instead, the Tory leadership appears to believe, as Labour’s did through much of the 1980s, that the voters were wrong but will eventually come round to the party’s way of thinking.

The lasting reluctance of the media properly to scrutinise the opposition means that Cameron will almost certainly go into the next election having failed to take on his party on any single major issue. Two years ago, he called for “significantly less” immigration, abandoning any short-lived attempt to dampen rhetoric on that issue. And in April this year he used an article in the Sun to denounce the government for lying over “uncontrolled immigration”. In the same month, he ordered a return to the party’s “core vote strategy”, a focus on traditional issues such as immigration and Europe, issues so unsuccessfully pursued by his close ally William Hague, and Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith before him.

He presides over the most anti-European parliamentary party in Conservative history, having based part of his leadership campaign on the party’s withdrawal from membership of the centrist conservative grouping in Brussels. In the midst of a series of expenses scandals involving the Tory MP Derek Conway and three Tory MEPs, Cameron pushed hard, again in the Sun, for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. He said that having a referendum would help to “clean up politics”, but this was a distraction.

On last year’s messy education row, in which Cameron attempted to halt the creation of more grammar schools, he subsequently retreated, under pressure from the right, and went out of his way to emphasise that this was “not a Clause Four moment”. He said: “I don’t go round picking fights [with my party].”

More generally, Cameron’s talk of a “social revolution” – his desire to heal our “broken society” – simply amounts in practice to little more than a hardening of support for the traditional family: tax breaks for mothers to stay at home and for married couples. Even global warming and the environment are no longer priorities. In May, Cameron failed to mention the words “environment” or “climate change” in a 1,200-word statement about his priorities for government, and his adviser Zac Goldsmith has been sidelined.

Before the conference season, Cameron appeared firm in his belief that Labour would very soon erupt into full-scale civil war; and he himself had otherwise just to remain calm and patient and the election would be his to win. But if the cliché is true that oppositions don’t win elections; government’s lose them, as many Tories believe, then the question might be asked: why did Mandelson, Blair, Brown and Alastair Campbell work so assiduously to create new Labour?

Conservative MPs on the pro-European left of the party are concerned about its fundamental policy direction. They say that the prospect of genuine – including fiscal – change was killed off at the crucial moment when Cameron audaciously entered the leadership contest against Kenneth Clarke in 2005, and, on the advice of the Tory MP and Times writer Michael Gove, now the shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, adopted Michael Portillo’s socially liberal agenda. Portillo, about whom Gove wrote a biography, had also refused to back Clarke for the leadership in 2001.

So, instead of the wholesale, root and branch change that Clarke embodied – as with Neil Kinnock with Militant in the 1980s, and Blair with Clause Four in the 1990s – the Tories remained committed to a right-wing fiscal policy, especially cutting inheritance tax for the rich.

Some of the more thoughtful Tories privately worry that it is an ideological commitment to free-market fundamentalism that leaves the party open to Labour’s attacks over, for example, the shadow chancellor’s comment that “people make loads of money out of the misery of others”, as well as expose the Tories’ short-sighted failure last month to condemn the practice of “short-selling” shares in the City.

On the right of the party, meanwhile, the disaffected David Davis is increasingly emerging as the focal point for dissent. Davis, who fell out with the neoconservatives in the shadow cabinet, led by Gove and Osborne, and whom Osborne is known privately to attack, is keeping his head down after his crusading by-election victory. Early this week, he was ona fact-finding mission in Kabul. But at Westminster someof his allies say there is nothing “modern” about the way in which some members of the shadow cabinet privately support the government on 42-day detention and ID cards, but without either the confidence or the integrity to say so publicly.

At the same time, on the left, Clarke, who also opposed ID cards, would have made the totemic commitment to tax and spending cuts. Further, he would not have made the risky commitment to sharing the proceeds of growth that enables Brown to portray the Tories as cutters of investment in hospitals and schools. And it is unlikely that the former chancellor would have allowed the Tories to be as exposed as they now are by the international financial crisis.

ILLUSTRATION BY DAN MURRELL

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This week, with Labour more united than it has been for nearly a year, there are the first signs of panic and discord inside Conservative Central Office, as well as a return to what Mandelson calls “Tory dirty tricks”. The most obvious dirty trick was the leaking to the Sunday Times that Mandelson had criticised Brown over dinner in Corfu. This is not true.

The second, less noticed, dirty trick concerns the role of Michael Ashcroft, who is back in Central Office as deputy chairman. On 29 September, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary, Cameron’s Money Men, one of the revelations of which was that Ashcroft was using Bearwood Corporate Services, a subsidiary of one of his companies in Belize, as a conduit through which to funnel funds into the Tory party in an apparent violation of the spirit, if not the essence, of electoral law. Sir Alistair Graham, the former standards committee chair, told the programme that the almost £3m donation should be investigated by the Electoral Commission and returned by the Conservatives.

In the process of making the film, Dartmouth, the production company, had a researcher donate money (two instalments of £167) to the Conservatives. Central Office found out about this and leaked the story about the researcher to the papers to distract from the larger issue of Ashcroft. Iain Dale, the influential but partisan Tory blogger, wrote about the researcher earlier this month, and the Mail on Sunday followed up, tracking down the researcher to her home. Labour sources blame Cameron’s press office for what happened and for the persecution of the researcher. “How did the papers get hold of her address and a private letter written by her to the treasurer of the Tory party?” asks one Labour figure. “Do the Tories, and David Cameron personally, who is quoted in the piece attacking Channel 4, feel comfortable with aiding photographers using long lenses to secretly photograph a 24-year-old woman who hasn’t broken any law outside her private home address?”

Channel 4 sources asked, too, why Central Office is so exercised about a £300 donation via a third party, but is failing to investigate the alleged £3m donation via a third party which they received from their own deputy chairman, on whose residency and tax status Cameron continues to remain silent.

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Early in Cameron’s leadership, there was a fascinating moment during a little-watched interview on Sky News during which, unusually, he was asked questions “from the left” as opposed to “from the right”, a process rarely, if ever, repeated since.

The interviewer quoted the new leader as saying that he wakes up every morning and asks himself: “How can I change the Conservative Party today?” So how would he change the party, he was asked. It was a question Tony Blair would have relished. But Cameron faltered and – showing one of those occasional flashes of rage – sought to terminate the interview.

Cameron, who does not suffer from a lack of self-confidence, would do well to remember that there are those who oppose him in the Conservative Party and who are not convinced by his inconsistent and often opportunistic leadership. On the left, Clarke remains the true hero. On the right, Davis lurks dangerously on the back benches, as he did when he was an effective public accounts committee chairman under William Hague.

The role of Boris Johnson should not be forgotten, nor should his carefully planned denunciation as “piffle” the Tory leader’s claim that Britain is a “broken society”. Johnson’s unilateral sacking of Sir Ian Blair as Metropolitan Police Commissioner, his rallying call at the party conference against Labour for seeking to “punish the capitalists and to bring in new regulations to fetter the banks”, are further indication of his ambition and a reminder that his position as Mayor of London makes him the most powerful Conservative in the country. In the autumn last year, as Gordon Brown led by 10 per cent in the polls, the former Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram was among those publicly to criticise the Cameron leadership. He broke cover with an “alternative manifesto”, espousing a return to traditional, hard-right Tory values. Cameron suddenly looked vulnerable. But Brown was undermined by equivocation over when to call an election, the 10p tax fiasco and a series of blunders – not all of which were his fault. Cameron, so jittery for a period, recovered his composure, aided by a media-friendly conference performance.

But as Mandelson said last week: “What goes down can come up”; and whatever they say in public, shadow cabinet members accept that the return of Mandelson, as well as Alastair Campbell, is a cause for anxiety in the Tory ranks. “The Tory revolution has taken a puncture. It is by no means wrecked but there is certainly more of a contest than there was a month ago,” says Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday.

The battle lines are now drawn between the experience of Brown and other senior ministers, and a callow Conservative leadership that has won over the media but not changed the party as extensively, or fundamentally, as it would like many of us to believe. Ultimately, the electorate will decide. But in aweek in which George Howarth has called for an end to hostilities within the Labour Party, senior Conservatives from both the right and left in the party are beginning to accept that, far from being won, what will be an especially hard-fought general election campaign has not yet even begun.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks