Douglas Carswell once wrote David Cameron a note about how to revive Conservative Party membership. The Prime Minister might have conceded a meeting in response, though given the demands on his time this might have been excessive. Alternatively, he could have arranged a meeting between the Clacton MP and the Party Chairman of the time, and thrown his weight behind the best of Carswell’s suggestions. Either way, it would have been worth his while to reply himself. Instead, the Clacton MP received a note from Ed Llewellyn, Cameron’s Chief of Staff. This helped to confirm Carswell’s view that the Prime Minister wasn’t interested in his ideas. That Llewellyn replied suggests that Cameron’s belief for some while has been that the Clacton MP is an oddball.
Carswell’s defection certainly is odd, not to mention mistaken (though also, as I wrote yesterday, rather brave – since he is prepared to face a by-election). It is odd to have called for Party discipline as recently as January, only to leave the Party altogether scarcely more than six months later – the only one that can deliver the In-Out referendum which to him is the touchstone of politics. But the Llewellyn note really does convey something about the Prime Minister’s attitude to “the battle of ideas”. Cameron’s cast of mind is characteristic of a certain sort of Englishman: it combines intelligence of a high order with a sense that ideas shouldn’t be pressed too earnestly – and that to “bang on” about them, as he himself might put it, is worse than wrong: it is somehow an error of taste.
Andrew Gimson sees this outlook as an Anglican one. It is certainly at odds with Carswell’s political nonconformism. And unlike Carswell, the Prime Minister is a power-focused politician rather than an ideas-focused one: that’s to say, his priority is to hold office in the Conservative interest rather than pursue ideological quests (as he would see it). After all, only a power-focused politician would have described himself as the Heir to Blair. Indeed, the Blair experience has shaped Cameron’s leadership. He is a thoroughly professional operator in the non-pejorative sense of the word – good at crafting a line; getting it over on TV; not getting knocked off-message; not getting distracted from winning (or trying to).
Today, the hunt is up for Conservative MPs who will follow Carswell to UKIP. Maybe some will, maybe none will: time will tell, and nearly everything else is guesswork in the meantime. So perhaps it is better to search instead for those Tory MPs who, unlike Cameron, are not power-focused politicians but are, like Carswell, ideas-focused ones, and ask if they are the wave of the future. The Clacton MP’s old friend and co-author Daniel Hannan springs to mind. But he, of course, is not an MP. It will be claimed that he and Carswell are rare among Conservative politicians in placing ideas first and office second. However, they are not quite as unusual as some imagine. Almost off the top of my head, I name three. All are members of the 2010 intake. None, interestingly, are on the Right of the Party.
Zac Goldsmith combines Eurosceptism with green politics. Rory Stewart is a renowned writer, a serious thinker about intervention abroad, and much more of an operator than some believe. (You don’t get elected as Chairman of a Select Committee otherwise.) Jesse Norman is both a reflective thinker in the tradition of Burke, whose biography he recently wrote, and a Parliamentary street fighter who is now leading opposition to the proposed appointment of Carol Mills. None are potential UKIP defectors. (Goldsmith has ruled the move out explicitly.) All of them are high-minded. None are remotely on-message. All of them have tangled with Downing Street, sometimes quietly, sometimes less so, and share Carswell’s contempt for biddability.
Sooner or later, the age of Cameron and Osborne will end – perhaps in 2020 or after, perhaps as soon as next May. What will follow may be very different. For the first time, a generation of Tory politicians will be present at the top of the Party who didn’t serve under John Major and see opposition under Blair: Sajid Javid, Liz Truss, perhaps Nicky Morgan – and the three men named above. They will be more conviction-led. They will be less professional. They will also be more accessible – that’s to say, they’re part of the tranche of MPs who gone straight on to Twitter and engage with voters more directly. They will be more like Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond – quirky, outspoken, “authentic” – than Osborne or Cameron. Carswell is gone but the shift in tone and thinking of which he was part continues.