Peter Oborne writes about the big Tory turnaround in today’s Daily Mail. He believes that Cameron has made major changes in order to transform his opinion poll ratings of last year. Here are some of Oborne’s ‘evidences’ with our comments in italics afterwards:
- Grammar schools: "A year ago, Cameron’s leadership had just been brought to its knees after he infuriated his core supporters by sanctioning a scathing attack on grammar schools by his education spokesman David Willetts. However, Cameron has since appointed a new education spokesman, Michael Gove, and has a new policy which decrees that grammar schools must be ‘absolutely defended’." Although it’s true that Michael Gove has been warmer to grammar schools there is no big shift in policy towards, for example, supporting their expansion in areas of the country where there are no grammars.
- Green issues: "Take, also, the environment. When Cameron became Tory leader, green issues lay at the heart of everything he did. He would take his ‘carbon neutral’ bicycle journey to work. To show his concern about melting glaciers, he orchestrated a photo-shoot of himself being pulled by dog-sled inside the Arctic Circle. Nuclear power was, he declared, a ‘last resort’. However, this emphasis has now radically changed. Recently, Cameron remarked: ‘If nuclear power stations can make their case in the market, they should go ahead.’ The Tories have also pledged to introduce a ‘fair fuel duty stabiliser’ which would lower the amount of duty imposed by the Chancellor when the cost of oil goes up. And his concern about his own carbon footprint seems to have waned – having now clocked up more than 70 flights by private jet or helicopter – the most environmentally-damaging methods of transport since becoming Tory leader." The environment is certainly not the central theme that it was and the shift on nuclear power is notable. David Cameron’s recent opposition to Heathrow expansion shows that the theme is still alive, however. The most significant shift is towards a more positive environmentalism – George Osborne signalling recently, for example, that households will be encouraged to recycle.
- Economic policy: "On the economy, the shift has been almost as marked. This time last year, Cameron seemed out of touch with the financial struggles which dominate the lives of so many ordinary, hard-working British families. Economic policy, he blithely insisted, was ‘not just about giving people a tax cut but giving them more time for the good things in life’. Yet Cameron’s most recent comments have been much more understanding, with an emphasis on the pain that voters are suffering from rises in the cost of living and the difficulties so many face in paying their ever-increasing tax bills." The economy and tax are back at the centre of the Conservative message but there has been no big shifts. The pledge to match Labour’s spending increases is still Tory policy and there’ll be no unfunded tax relief.
- Crime: "Then there is the area of law and order. Soon after becoming Tory leader, David Cameron spoke with sympathy about the hoodies who menace so many of our streets. The problem, he declared, was ‘neglect and absence of love’. That naive view has quickly been jettisoned. Now he’s much tougher and the message is: ‘Carry a knife, and you will go to jail.’" No contradiction or big change here. Cameron still wants to be tough on the causes of crime – by proving young people with better structure, education and the love of a good family – and tough on crime – by increasing prison places etc.
- Law and order: "Cameron’s personal style has changed, too. When he took over from Michael Howard, he called for an end to ‘Punch and Judy politics’ and promised an element of crossparty consensus by saying he would support the Government on certain issues. Now, however, Cameron is far more confrontational, as witnessed by his repeated attack on Gordon Brown as ‘useless’ during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. In short, a new, more confident and much nastier Tory leader has emerged in recent months – one that has received the private endorsement of Margaret Thatcher." Peter Oborne is largely correct here and he could also have mentioned the disappearance of open necked shirts, too.
Oborne exaggerates but it’s also true that his list is incomplete. He could also have mentioned greater discussion of immigration (part of a wider ‘And theory’ broadening); the downgrading of the A-list for candidate selection; and a willingness to now mention (and appear with) Margaret Thatcher and George W Bush.
But the more striking feature of ‘Cameronism’ is its continuity on some of the biggest issues. Three stand out:
- The centrality of the social reform agenda. David Cameron’s first act as Tory leader was to visit a community project with Iain Duncan Smith (Ray Lewis’ Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy actually) and establish the Policy Group on Social Justice. Social justice has remained a central theme ever since and George Osborne connected it to the long-term health of the public finances last Tuesday.
- Economic stability before tax cuts. We think it’s a false choice but you can’t accuse George Osborne of wavering from his belief that fiscal conservatism and budgetary discipline must come before supply-side tax cuts.
- The NHS is safe in Tory hands. The party has said that it will match Labour’s spending on the NHS and avoided any talk of bold reform. As with the economy, ‘NHYes’ is a reassurance-drenched message.