Saturday, March 31, 2012

Heir to Blair in more ways than one

Shortly after becoming leader of his party in 2005, David Cameron caused consternation among Conservative supporters by claiming that he was the true ‘heir to Blair.’

In one sense, it was a strange move, since the former Prime Minister had by then already begun the long, slow descent from the public adulation that greeted his arrival in No 10 to the public disillusionment that hastened his departure.

But Mr Cameron’s boast had a larger strategic purpose, namely to fix himself in the public mind as a politician of the centre ground and at the same time portray Mr Blair’s putative successor Gordon Brown as one who would abandon that territory.

And since entering Downing Street, he has continued in the same vein, claiming more than once that his health and education reforms are no more than a continuation of the changes initiated by Mr Blair a decade ago and thereby portraying Labour’s opposition to them as indicative as “lurch to the left.”

Mr Cameron has also found himself praised by former Blairite apologists such as John McTernan for his policy of liberal interventionism abroad, most notably in Libya.

But over the past week, much less welcome comparisons have started to be drawn between the two leaders as the government’s political fortunes took a marked turn for the worse.

At some points over the past seven days it has looked as though recent history may be repeating itself, such is the sense of déjà vu surrounding some of the government’s current crises.

Where New Labour has its 45p pension increase, the Coalition has its granny tax. Where New Labour had the fuel protests, the Coalition has the threat of a tanker drivers’ strike. And where New Labour was accused of selling honours for cash, Mr Cameron now finds himself accused of selling access.

No wonder that one of Mr Blair’s former speechwriters, Phil Collins, called it the government’s worst week in office so far, before going on to note wryly that under Mr Blair, each week was portrayed as being a worse one than the last.

Far more scathing was the verdict offered by the Conservative-leaning commentator
Peter Oborne, who saw this week’s events as signs of a shift in the political landscape.

“David Cameron’s claim that the government represents the interests of Britain as a whole now feels baseless and cynical, replaced by the growing perception that he represents nothing more than a coterie of rich and privileged men,” he wrote.

Oborne went onto to accuse Mr Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne of embracing “the worst aspects of Blairism: the obsession with very rich men; the divergence between public statements and private conduct; the preference for policy making through private cabal; and the almost demented Blairite contempt for their own party members."

This is only one example of what appears to be a deepening gulf between the government and its natural supporters, both in the press and in the country.

The Daily Telegraph was never that keen on him anyway, tending to regard him as “not really one of us” in much the same way as The Guardian once saw Mr Blair.

More worryingly for Mr Cameron, the Daily Mail now appears to have turned on him over the 'granny tax’ while The Sun has him in its sights over both the 'pasty tax' and the failure to do anything about fuel prices.

Some will say it's a good sign, showing that Mr Cameron is still occupying that fabled centre ground. Others will point out that alienating your natural allies is a political dead end, as Mr Blair eventually found to his cost.

Mr Cameron’s problems with the Tory press – and the wider party - really stem from one thing: his failure to win an outright parliamentary majority in 2010.

Had he succeeded in doing that, they would have forgiven him all his attempts to define himself in opposition to his own supporters, forgiven his portrayal of the Old Tories as a “nasty party” which he was determined to detoxify.

But he failed, even when up against an opponent whom they regarded as at best, ineffectual and, at worst, bonkers.

And until, like Mr Blair, he can prove himself a real winner, Mr Cameron will never truly capture his party’s heart.

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