"Vigilant" reflects on David Cameron’s first twenty days as Tory leader.
Oliver Letwin’s call for redistribution of wealth and reductions in inequality in yesterday’s Telegraph is only the most striking piece of an overall picture that is now emerging of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Last week, The Spectator’s new blog reported on private discussions between right-of-centre think tanks and Cameron aide Nicholas Boles, who narrowly missed becoming MP for Hove in May. What Boles had to say was anything but a message of reassurance, though the exact wording has since been disputed. He is reported as dashing hopes for reductions in taxes and extensions in privatisation and choice before they could be raised, and before Cameron had even been confirmed as leader. As far as public sector reform goes, Tony Blair’s cautious proposals may mark the endpoint for the coming years, rather than the start. Tax cuts look still less likely.
Small government conservatives cannot really claim to have been betrayed, or misled by previous commitments from which he is now retreating. Indeed, keen believers in rolling back the frontiers of the state and reducing the tax burden are the only major branch of conservatism David Cameron didn’t woo in the long leadership contest that ended on December 6th.
The least known of the five contenders and so the one most capable of success in spending the time from May to December moulding how the party would see him, Cameron demonstrated good judgement in the comments he made, reassuring many in the party that he was fundamentally with them on issues they held dear.
Eurosceptics were placated as he talked of learning the lessons of the ERM after Black Wednesday, and encouraged when he subtly slighted Kenneth Clarke by noting that Tony Blair and "others we won’t mention" had not. Running with a pledge to withdraw the Tories from the European People’s Party was to confirm an essentially eurosceptic identity.
Social conservatives instinctively suspicious of the ‘Notting Hill set’ of which Cameron was deemed a leading figure were to be surprised early on by a pledge to recognise in Britain’s tax system the value of marriage to society. The Social Affairs Unit blogger Watlington explains the significance of his then Chief of Staff Alex Deane, whose strategic attitude to politics Deane has demonstrated recently on this site.
"a vociferous advocate of his new Master, arguing that Cameron will do a ‘Nixon in China’. Mr Deane believes that it takes someone from a libertarian ‘Notting Hill’ background to make the case for the family and for marriage."
The Cameron campaign site also indicated support for curbs on abortion. Speaking for many in the Cornerstone group as they switched support from Liam Fox to David Cameron after reassuring (to them) private meetings, John Hayes explained: "He is much more socially Conservative than people think. You should not assume Cameron is instinctively close to people like Portillo."
With the help of Michael Gove, foreign policy hawks and Atlanticists were fiercely courted in the language and vocabulary that characterises their idealistic outlook on the war on terror. "The struggle we are engaged in is, at root, ideological" – not merely managerial or legal. The enemy was not merely a tactic – terrorism – but was named: "Islamism". Parallels were drawn with Nazism and Communism, and between the appeasers of the 1930s and those whose main position on the war on terror is to counsel caution. A host of measures were proposed to promote a common British identity, culture and language among immigrants, and political correctness in teaching the country’s history was ridiculed and condemned.
Such episodes must be qualified by other pieces of evidence, before and after the leadership ballot, that complicate the picture they paint of a full-blooded traditionalist Tory. But they each show an entirely expected effort by a man who hoped to lead the Conservatives to secure support from those in the party who take these views on Europe, social issues and foreign policy.
What is most striking, then, is the one major branch of conservatism Cameron consistently excluded from his wooing. Month after month of leadership contest produced no clear statement of support for a conservative cause as dear to Tory hearts as any other: smaller government and lower taxes. "I don’t think anyone wakes up and thinks ‘gosh, I wish the state was smaller today than it was yesterday’", he declared at one stage.
Policy commitments in this area were no more comforting. A Cameron government would famously "share the proceeds of growth", but this commitment is transparently opaque. Saying nothing about how periods of zero or negative growth would be treated, in periods of positive growth it pledges only that the state won’t lay claim to every single extra penny. Passport voucher systems for pupils and hospital patients were to be dropped at least until after elusive improvements could be shown in the public sector.
Those who have been taken aback by the reported comments from Boles and Letwin should realise they are following on closely from what Cameron himself said from May onwards.
Whether or not they wanted David Cameron to be Tory leader, most Conservatives accepted that with his expected victory would come challenges to some of their dearly-held principles. Many grudgingly welcomed it as a necessary move towards the electorate. What is ironic is the picture emerging of which principles have been most clearly jettisoned.
Attitudes to America and Iraq have been essentially neoconservative – a label many in Cameron’s camp accept with pride. The party’s intense interest in Europe has been indulged and eurofederalist conservatives on both sides of the English Channel slighted. Most surprisingly, the candidate from Notting Hill appears to be a convert to Easterhouse social conservative claims that insofar as Tories were seen as ‘the nasty party’, it wasn’t because they were obsessively judgemental about social issues, but because they were seen as interested only in making money, indifferent to social breakdown and the millions left behind – a reputation likely to be confirmed rather than repudiated by a commitment to social libertarianism.
Three weeks in, the chief casualty from the traditional conservative package looks to be the small state, low tax view. In policy terms, the biggest losers in the Cameron-lead party may turn out to be the socially liberal, fiscally conservative Notting Hill Tories who backed him with least reservation.