I don’t want this to sound too much like an undergraduate PPE essay, but the question of whether David Cameron is a Conservative requires one to define what one means by that term. The Tory party is a broad church, and the conservative movement in Britain is far wider than the party. Each of us in that movement (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I must stress I am not a member of the party) has his or her own definition of what conservatism is. By mine, Cameron is something else altogether.
In my own traffic with Conservatives, I detect common themes that they would wish to see elaborated in policy under Cameron, but which for the moment are not. They want the state to be cut back, and all that that entails. They are profoundly unimpressed by the European project and wish us to have less of a part in it or, in some cases, no part at all. They are strong supporters of grammar schools and strong opponents of the diluted university education they believe is being purveyed in institutions of higher learning today. They endorse private education, and would like to see a voucher system that made it more affordable to more people. They support strict controls on immigration. One of the few public spending programmes they would like to see expanded is that of prison-building. They believe the notion of man-made global warming is an anti-capitalist conspiracy. They support fox-hunting and feel that urban Britain has been greatly favoured over the rural since 1997. They support the National Health Service, but would like to see it fundamentally reformed. In their attitudes to welfare, they draw a distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. They prefer married families to unmarried ones.
As far as mainstream Conservatives are concerned, none of those views is really exceptional, and certainly not extreme. Yet, as I look down that list, I am hard put to find any item on it with which I am convinced Cameron would unequivocally agree.
The party’s economic policy, insofar as one can be properly defined, is a mess. Cameron now intervenes more and more to enunciate it, as he did recently when ruling out “swingeing cuts” in the first year of a Tory administration. What this says about his faith in George Osborne can only be a matter for conjecture. Big business, which is supposed to be the Tories’ natural constituency, is telling him it will relocate abroad if the 50p tax rate is not reversed. Yet the Tories are afraid to do this in case it is represented by Labour (as it surely would be) as favouring the “rich”. Never mind that the “rich” tend to spend their disposable income on products and services supplied by the “poor”, many of whom will suffer a severe, and not just marginal, blow to their lifestyle when the higher rate comes into effect in April.
Cameron is also taking a Heathite attitude towards cuts. The NHS will not be cut, he says. His lieutenants say that the only health policy the Tories can afford, politically, is one that is identical to Labour’s. This ignores the widespread belief among Conservatives that a public service costing more than £100bn a year must have scope for reform; and reform that provides a health service free at the point of use to all who need it, but more cheaply and efficiently. There is also bemusement among Tories that the only other budget that Cameron has guaranteed to protect is the one for international development. It is presumed that this is because he wishes to grandstand at some point about his party being compassionate to people in the third world, and therefore not “nasty”.
Many natural Tories have still not forgiven Cameron for his obtuse handling of the Lisbon Treaty question. His promise – or threat – to do something about the treaty even if it were ratified has turned out to be empty. He cannot unratify the treaty without our leaving the EU altogether. There is talk of his calling for an intergovernmental conference, and even of having a referendum to give him a mandate to call for one, but that is absurd. Cameron may have to tolerate erosions of sovereignty that are no fault of his, but rather of Gordon Brown’s, yet the blame he will attract from Tories for allowing them to happen will be the fault of his having raised expectations unreasonably. Cameron seems out of step with his party on Europe, and not really to understand the issues – as his handling of Lisbon and of his party’s realignment with various oddballs in the European Parliament would seem to confirm.
Yet nothing upsets mainstream Tories more than their leader’s stand on grammar schools. This is a policy driven by focus groups taken among non-Tory voters, who say that grammar schools are not popular with them. They wouldn’t be, would they? However, they are intensely popular with almost every Tory activist I have ever met, and with many other natural Tory voters. They are seen as offering a route out of poverty to young people with brains.
This is where Cameron’s own background comes to grate with his party. If one has a father rich enough to send one to Eton, then grammar schools are neither here nor there. If they are the only way for some young people to get a truly superb education, it matters very much when a Conservative leader (who is also an OE) says he can’t be arsed about them.
Cameron knows that he must throw the odd bone to his core vote. He has encouraged the retributive ethos against burglars that one finds in one’s own home – though this was made easier for him by the fact that the case that prompted the debate involved the shocking treatment of an Asian householder: grandstanding about anything that might be seen to support ethnic minorities has become second nature. He seemed to be prepared to defend married families through the tax system, but that became subject to the usual economic confusion that so often besets the party. Cameron shifts easily on such issues because he has very few principles, other than his belief in himself as prime minister. If it is feasible one day to reward marriage through the tax system, he will do so. If it is not, he won’t really care less. Such is the mindset of the former public relations man, whose elastic intellect can be placed on whatever side of whatever argument.
It is that intellectual (or is it moral?) weakness that is likely to be exposed in the dirty fighting of an election campaign. Natural Conservative voters want blood – Labour blood – and Mr Cameron must try to give it to them. Having little in his political wardrobe that passes for a principle, that may be simple to do at a superficial level. However, it makes him vulnerable to scrutiny and to being tested in a way that would provide few difficulties for a genuine conviction politician, but which could severely undermine an imitation. Not least for that reason, real Conservatives await the campaign with great interest.
Simon Heffer is associate editor of the Daily Telegraph