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HousemagazinescanPasted below is an article I have written for the latest edition of the House Magazine.  It doesn’t contain anything that’ll be very new to regular readers of this blog but it does summarise a lot of regular themes – not least the need for authenticity and for breadth.

"David Cameron has enjoyed a relatively care-free first eighteen months as Tory leader.  The party has been more united than for a generation.  As Labour’s troubles mounted an unpopular Prime Minister appeared too exhausted and distracted to overcome them.  Cameron himself enjoyed a good press.  His fresh approach to political discourse and his interest in centre ground issues like the environment won him many admirers and from unexpected sources.

The high point of his leadership came in May when the party secured spectacular gains in the local elections.  More than 900 new Tory councillors were elected.  There was particular joy at gains in Blackpool, Chester and South Ribble.  The party high command read such northern progress as a reassuring sign that Cameron did have appeal in areas where Michael Howard had underperformed in 2005.

Following on from that high point, however, there have been some very difficult few weeks.  I still struggle to quite understand why the response to David Willetts’ grammar schools speech was so strong.  David Cameron had announced his opposition to new grammar schools many times previously – during the Conservative leadership race.  What seemed to light the blue touch paper was David Willetts’ direct questioning of the existing grammar schools.  The Shadow Education Secretary’s remarks also came after a number of other tensions between the leadership and the grassroots.  I think of the delay in leaving the EPP.  The much misinterpreted ‘hug-a-hoodie’ speech (words that David Cameron never uttered, of course).  The threat of taxation of air travel.  The Polly Toynbee moment.  David Willetts’ grammar schools row was the last straw for many Tories.

David Cameron also handled the row badly.  Rather than seeking to reassure grassroots Tories and unhappy MPs he dismissed their concerns as “delusional” and the whole debate as “pointless”.  I know that CCHQ greatly regret those words now and have promised that there’ll be no repeat of anything similar.  But the words are part of a wider problem. David Cameron’s critics would say that the team around him was too arrogant.  That’s unfair but it’s certainly too closed.  The team does not react well to criticism and has increasingly attempted to silence critics rather than befriend them.

Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin has, for example, been making hamfisted attempts to detach individual MPs from the socially conservative and Eurosceptic Cornerstone Group.  This same attitude partly explains Quentin Davies’ extraordinary defection.  Mr Davies felt that noone in the Tory leader’s team was taking his concerns seriously.  A last straw may have been a Commons putdown from William Hague when he raised doubts about the Conservative Party’s call for an inquiry into the Iraq war, even though British troops were still in action.

The Conservative Party is not in the strong position that most observers – until very recently – had expected it to enjoy at the start of the Brown era.  Enjoying incredible levels of media attention Brown may soon enjoy opinion poll leads.  Such leads, even if temporary, will test the nerves of Conservative MPs and activists.  Many have been willing to trade some hard policy sacrifices for the prospect of a return to government.  If that prospect fades badly they’ll swallow the ‘change medicine’ with increasing reluctance.

I believe that the party will hold its nerve, however, and that it should do so.  The number one reason is that the policy review groups are beginning to report.  If the whole policy process delivers what Oliver Letwin has promised, it will address the central weaknesses of Project Cameron.  It will show that there is both depth and breadth to David Cameron’s leadership.

First, the depth.  Labour strategists are determined to present the Conservative leader as weak and superficial.  The policy review process will show that David Cameron does have a serious agenda and that it is different from that offered by Gordon Brown.  Central to the process will be Iain Duncan Smith’s social justice report and its central thesis that the breakdown of the family is the leading cause of Britain’s social decay.  It will be a controversial report and Labour will unfairly present the findings as an attempt to turn back the clock to some never-existing golden age for the family.  Harriet Harman has already quipped that Project Cameron is back to basics without a tie.

The wider message of the report, however, if Andy Coulson can get the party’s communications right, is that only the Conservatives are serious about Britain’s long-term problems.  Labour has poured billions of pounds into the fight against poverty but the deepest social problems of the nation are untouched.  David Cameron has the opportunity to present himself as the only politician willing to honestly face up to the root causes of social exclusion.

If the family report will testify to the depth and seriousness of the Tory project, other reports will contribute to the sense of breadth and ambition.  Up until now the Cameron project has looked a little narrow.  There’s been too much talk of the environment and too little attention on grittier, bread’n’butter issues like crime.  That is going to change.  There will be no retreat from the gentler, greener Conservatism of the last eighteen months but a lot more will be said about crime and Europe in a bid to keep the Tory coalition together.  Speaking to Conservative MPs on the day that Gordon Brown finally entered 10 Downing Street, the Conservative leader declared himself a believer in ‘the politics of and’.

The ‘politics of and’ argues that the party does not need to abandon popular policies on Europe, crime and immigration but that they are not enough.  It argues that the party also needs to stand for international and social justice.  There need be no contradictions.  It is perfectly consistent, for example, to promise tougher border controls and more engagement with the poorest people of the world.  A commitment to support the institution of marriage and to protect the rights of gay adults is also perfectly compatible and a fusion of traditionalist and moderniser concerns.

The policy review process is not without risks or tensions.  Peter Lilley’s development group will probably recommend opening markets to third world farmers, for example, while John Gummer’s quality of life group wants to reduce the air freighting of produce in favour of local sources of food.  Huge efforts are currently underway by Conservative Central Office to ‘bombproof’ the reports from such difficulties and the inevitable Labour attacks.

Four messages will dominate the Tory pitch in the run-up to the election.  For voters on the centre ground David Cameron will continue to lead the climate change debate and his commitment to the NHS will also deepen.  Noone should underestimate the respect that David Cameron has for the NHS because of the care it has provided his disabled son, Ivan.  For more traditionalist Conservative voters and the famous Essex man who was so important to Margaret Thatcher’s electoral success, there’ll be an emphasis on crime and protecting the family.  By the autumn the Tories will publish their draft manifesto.  By then we will know whether the Brown honeymoon was a passing phenomenon and whether Tory MPs will have kept patience with the Cameron project.  It’s fasten seat belts time for the Conservatives."

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