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The hollow-gram

David Cameron is no moderniser, but wedded to old-style Tory policies. So why isn’t there more quest

It is perhaps the biggest mystery of contemporary British politics that David Cameron has been universally praised by both the left and the right for having changed and “modernised” the Conservative Party. In fact, in every major policy area, he has failed to make fundamental changes to his party’s approach. Challenged by this correspondent to name one single significant change Cameron has made, Fraser Nelson, the cheerleading political editor of the Spectator, merely said that they were “too numerous to mention”. Michael Heseltine could only cite a different “perception” among young people. After he won the leadership in 2005, Cameron himself was asked on Sky News what exactly he wanted to change about the party. His response? A flash of irritation and an attempt to cut the cameras.

Four years on, it is time for more sceptical scrutiny, starting with the issue likely to decide the next general election: fiscal policy. From the leadership campaign onwards, Cameron adopted Michael Portillo’s state-slashing neo-Thatcherite agenda, cloaked with a cuddly social liberalism. Had Kenneth Clarke, who also stood for the leadership in 2005, been elected, he would have made ridding the party of its ideological commitment to tax cuts the Tories’ own “Clause Four” moment. But George Osborne, the shadow chancellor whom Cameron will never sack, has always insisted that they do not need any such moment. In fact, on Osborne’s advice, Cameron abandoned the Tories’ commitment to government spending plans in November. So, far from resisting calls for tax and spending cuts, they are backing them just when these are least needed.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives remain the party of the very rich, proposing to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £2m. They failed to condemn the practice of short-selling shares last September and the party’s opposition to bankers’ lavish bonuses has been a last-minute conversion. But with the economy dominating the news, other areas in which Cameron has made no changes have been forgotten.

Only a year after becoming leader, Cameron abandoned moderation on the sensitive issue of immigration, demanding “significantly less” of it. The Tories now want a cap on “unsustainable” numbers of incomers, and Cameron has accused the government of “lying” over “uncontrolled immigration”.

His first announcement on the EU was to promise to withdraw Tory MEPs from the centrist European People’s Party grouping (a pledge first made to see off his right-wing rival for the leadership Liam Fox). His decision to come good on that promise is a move from which even William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard shied away. The Tories are not alone in their intention to leave the EPP after elections in June; they are joined by others such as the Polish Law and Justice party, one of whose MPs, Artur Górski, described Barack Obama’s election as “a disaster” and “the end of the civilisation of the white man”. Cameron also pushed hard last year for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He presides over nothing less than the most anti-European parliamentary party in Tory history.

The environment was the issue on which Cameron built his reputation for modernisation. But since the photo shoots with huskies in the Arctic and the invitation to “vote blue, go green” in 2006, he has quietly downgraded this commitment. He omitted the terms “environment” and “climate change” from a mission statement last May, and his eco-adviser Zac Goldsmith has been firmly sidelined.

In May 2007, Cameron pledged that no new grammar schools would be created under the Tories. But, under fire from the right, he backtracked and left the possibility open. By this February, he was saying that “we’ve got to bust open the state monopoly on education” and talking of the need to increase “competition”.

Perhaps nothing better epitomises the fraudulence of the Tory claim to reinvention than the re-emergence of Iain Duncan Smith, who leads a “social justice” institute which, in reality, opposes social justice through redistribution, the tax system or government help. With Duncan Smith’s guidance, Cameron has developed his “broken Britain” theme, and promises to reward married couples with tax breaks, thus satisfying the old Tory urge to penalise single mothers.

On civil liberties, the prominent neoconservative trio in the shadow cabinet – Michael Gove, Osborne and Hague – has now prevailed, after the brief flirtation with the more liberal position pushed by the former shadow home secretary David Davis. Having managed to persuade the Tories to oppose ID cards and fight the government on 42-day detention for terror suspects (which Gove, at least, privately supported), Davis was dismissed as “mad” by his colleagues. Last month, as Cameron introduced the new shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, he made it clear civil liberties were no longer a “priority” and that miscreants should know that it was the “Conservatives you are dealing with now”.

And just as the Tories are not challenged over their hypocritical attempts to exploit public antipathy towards bankers, they have been allowed to make political capital from other Labour policies that are perceived to have failed – even when the Tories supported them. This is especially the case in foreign affairs. Gordon Brown supported the Iraq invasion of 2003; but so did Cameron. Moreover, the ideology behind that invasion and the “war on terror” (from which the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has recently distanced himself) was, and is, wholeheartedly supported by Cameron’s neocon colleagues.

The Tory leader has been keen to emphasise what he has in common with another “change” candidate. Other than their relative youth, however, Barack Obama and David Cameron share little: they are diametrically opposed on every issue, from Europe to the Middle East, to the need for fiscal intervention. It is not surprising, as we reported last year, that Obama is said to have described Cameron as a “lightweight”.

The increasingly urgent question now is whe­ther the media and the electorate will also manage to see through the Tory leader – the most successfully projected hologram in modern British political history.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit