The State of the Tories
From grammar schools to the appointment of the News of the World's former editor Andy Coulson. David Cameron has encountered more turbulence this week than at any time, I think, since he became leader. A number of right-wing commentators in the Telegraph and the Mail have come out in the last couple of days to lambast the direction he's going. It's a good point at which to ask how he is doing as Tory leader - especially for A2 students getting ready for 'Conservatism in the UK Today'!
The grammar schools row has illuminated the Cameron project rather nicely, although not in the way he would have liked! The reason for Willetts - inadvisedly as it turns out - being so loud in his rejection of grammar schools was part of the ongoing attempt to show that the Tories are a changed party who want to reflect the needs of a modern society. From the beginning, Cameron has been concerned to adopt new political positions - notably on the environment, the NHS and crime - and reject some of what he considers to be the hidebound policies of old. Until now that latter group included the Tories' commitment to lower taxation, but now incldues the rejection of academic selection.
This has been Cameron's version of 'Compassionate Conservatism' (no-one would call it New Toryism...comparisons with Blair can only go so far!). It is a new take on the 'One Nation' agenda - a post-Blair remoulding of the Tory Party. In rhetoric especially, Cameron has been keen to identify the Tories as a party who can respond to the wider community, not just to their own die-hard supporters.
Of course, very little of this rhetoric has translated into specific policy, and you could argue that the Willetts problem was either his move into this new and strange realm of politics for the Cameron Tories (policy!) or, more likely, his own lack of strategic sense (he didn't actually need to mention grammar schools at all in his original speech on education to the CBI).
Cameron's approach has undoubtedly yielded positive results for the Tories. For all the cautious reporting, the Local Election results in England were largely a victory for the Tories, who are now the largest party of local government by a substantial margin. True, they had less success in the devolved assemblies where their vote remained pretty static, and they have not made the inroads they would like into the inner cities and vast swathes of northern England, but they are quite clearly further ahead than they have been ofr over a decade. In local government terms, in fact, the Tories haven't been this dominant since the mid-70s. Some of the Tory move forward has been due to the unpopularity of a third term Labour government, but the job for David Cameron has been to position his party so that it can benefit from such disillusionment, and in this he has begun to succeed.
The school row has not been good, and Cameron's recent poll ratings reflect this. It will blow over though. There is no right-wing challenger to Cameron, and he retains pretty well untrammelled authority in the party, although - like Blair - large sections of it have no affection for him. In fact, the two big tests for him have yet to materialise fully.
The first is the challenge of Gordon Brown's leadership. For all their baravdo, the Tory high command is worried by this man. He represents a change from Tony Blair, and a shift in prime ministerial style that could well work to his advantage. He also understands how to use government to his advantage like no other politician around today, having been a supremely successful chancellor in terms of maintaining and extending his political authority for the last ten years. While Cameron has looked besieged over the past few weeks, Brown has been cruising towards his coronation, and is quietly developing his distinct policy on the way.
Which brings us to problem number 2 - policy! Cameron knows that policy is something oppositions engage in with trepidation, and the grammar school row will merely have confirmed that! Yet he cannot approach the general election in a policy vacuum. He has set up numerous policy task forces, but they give the appearance of having been so much window dressing. Policy will be decided by Cameron and his inner circle - not by task forces!
Cameron is the post-Blair Tory, just as Blair was the post-Thatcher Labourite. Much of his development is on style and appearance, and the appointment of the relatively non-political Coulson to the top communciations job will affirm that tactical direction. The most we can say is that he has been the first leader since Thatcher to break firmly from her legacy, and redirect Tory thinking back towards the current centre ground of British politics. Like Blair, he is in many ways a non-party party leader. Fascinatingly, just as the Labour party are starting to reject some of the approaches of their three-time successful leader - for example in the areas of spin - Cameron appears to be embracing them firmly. It was George Osborne who recently commented that the Tories would be better than Gordon Brown at continuing the Blair reforms, and the education squabble was entirely about that. The problem for the Tories, though, is that Blair faced John Major and a seriously divided party in government in 1997. Gordon Brown is a very different prospect, and his party is still a long way from serious division!