Saturday, September 08, 2007

So do the Tories really believe in society?

Margaret Thatcher said society didn't exist. Now David Cameron's trying to mend it. No wonder he's so keen to shed the Iron Lady's legacy. This, by and large, is the theme of today's Newcastle Journal column looking back at the week's political developments.


A week ago last Friday, a sudden flurry of excitement went around the Westminster village. Labour MPs were said to be rushing back from holidays, a spate of meetings in Whitehall were allegedly cancelled, and ministers’ diaries were supposedly cleared.

For some, rather excitable pundits, it all added up to one thing: Gordon Brown was about to call Britain’s first autumn general election for 33 years.

Well, I hate to say I told you so, but it didn’t happen, and with the opinion polls now showing David Cameron’s Tories back within touching distance of Mr Brown and Labour, it was never likely to.

The election rumours – recycled on a series of right-wing blogs and even the odd national newspaper – had the definite whiff of an attempt to wind-up the Conservatives. Indeed, over the past week. Mr Brown has done little else.

So on Monday, for instance, we saw the appointments of renegade Tories John Bercow and Patrick Mercer to become government advisers, on services to children with communication difficulties and security issues respectively.

Mr Brown hailed this as an example of the “new politics” of bipartisanship and cross-party co-operation. It was, by contrast, a transparent example of the “old politics” of point-scoring and mischief-making.

Never mind that, a few short months ago, Labour ministers were rushing to condemn Mr Mercer as a racist after some rather injudicious off-the-record remarks about blacks in the armed forces ended up in the papers.

Now he is apparently to be welcomed as the latest occupant of Gordon’s Big Tent. When it comes to putting one over on Mr Cameron, it seems anything goes.

But that was not all. The following day came an even more astonishing piece of chutzpah from the Prime Minister as he answered questions at his monthly press conference – one of the few Blairite presentational innovations to survive the handover.

As former Tory deputy leader Michael Ancram fulminated over Mr Cameron’s betrayal of the party’s Thatcherite legacy, enter Mr Brown to claim that he is the true inheritor of the Iron Lady’s mantle.

Margaret Thatcher, he said, was a "conviction politician" who had "seen the need for change,” adding only the slight qualification that he would have dealt with mass unemployment a bit differently.

It was all a far cry from the 1980s Gordon Brown who lambasted Mrs Thatcher’s handling of the economy, but again, who cares about that when it’s all in the good cause of embarrassing the Tories?

Was there a serious point to these apparently farcical games? Well, I suppose if it demonstrated one thing it was that politics are now starting to return to normal after the phenomenon of the “Brown Bounce” over the course of the summer.

I wrote in last week’s column that the underlying political narrative of the autumn would be whether Mr Cameron could come back, and the early indications are that the answer is yes.

The two main party leaders are now as close in the opinion polls as they are appear close in ideology, dancing an increasingly complex pas-de-deux around the political centre ground in pursuit of that winning advantage.

I would expect that between now and the election there will be more and more forays onto eachother’s ground and stealing of eachother’s clothes as each tries to convince the electorate that he is simultaneously both tougher yet also more caring than the other.

Mischief-making aside, the major issue of substance on which Mr Brown and Mr Cameron locked horns this week concerned the twin themes of young people and citizenship.

The Tory leader said school leavers and those going to college should take part in a voluntary six-week summer programme ranging from charity work to mountain climbing.

Cleverly, he dubbed the initiative a 21st Century version of National Service and claimed it would boost participants' pride in themselves and in Britain.

This was something of a political masterstroke in that it is the kind of thing that will appeal to his right-wing critics while also reaching out to those of a more liberal tendency concerned about social breakdown.

Meanwhile Mr Brown and his energetic Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, were out and about on Thursday seeking the public’s views on how childrens’ lives can be improved.

Mr Balls, whose department now covers children's health, sport, and youth justice as well as schools, says he will use the answers to draw up a “10-year plan” for childrens’ services.

One of the main vehicles for this consultation will be Mr Brown’s so-called “citizen’s juries” in which groups of people will discuss questions such as "How can we keep young people out of trouble?"

The initiative follows a controversial report earlier this year from Unicef, which put the UK at the bottom of a league table of children's well-being among 21 industrialised nations.

What this all demonstrates is that, for the first time in living memory, the next election is likely to be fought around issues other than that of the economy, with the theme of the “the broken society” increasingly to the fore.

Mr Cameron thinks he can make this the Tories’ new big idea. His problem is that, historically, “society,” as opposed to the individual, has been something that Labour people care most about.

Indeed, it was the Tories’ most successful leader of modern times – Mrs Thatcher herself – who famously declared that there was “no such thing as society.”

In the present-day context, that alone would explain why Mr Cameron is so keen for his party to shed its Thatcherite clothes – whatever Mr Ancram and other “blasts from the past” may think.

So can he do it? Can Mr Cameron turn what has historically been one of the Tories’ biggest weaknesses into an electoral strength?

It is audacious, certainly, and it will require a great deal more flesh on the bones before it can be considered a coherent policy - but with rising public concern about social breakdown, the opportunity is there.

Mr Brown, though, has one crucial advantage over his Tory rival as they do battle for the public’s support - that whereas Mr Cameron can merely say, he as Prime Minister can actually do.

He may have passed up what some saw as a good chance to secure his own mandate this autumn. But it is far, far too early to say that such a chance will not come round again.

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1 comment:

Stuart Holmes said...

Dear Paul
Please check Agro with Lord Tim Clement Jones at LibDem Fringe
posted Monday 17
Stuart Holmes