North Oxford is not one of the most deprived areas of Great Britain. When its generally quite large houses come on to the market — which is not often — they tend to be snapped up by computer millionaires or bankers from London rather than by dons. The ‘Tory turncoat’ Shaun Woodward has just paid squillions for a not particularly beautiful neo-gothic semi-detached just around the corner from me. You might expect that this would be solid Tory territory, but it is not. In fact, being a Tory in North Oxford has not been entirely plain sailing these past few years. At election time Lib Dem and Green and a few Labour boards stretch as far as the eye can see, but you have to go north of Summertown, and root around among the more modest inter-war villas, to find a Tory one.
And yet the women waiting to collect their offspring outside the Dragon School in Bardwell Road think that David Cameron is a nice-looking boy. The matrons of North Oxford, who once voted for the brilliant Tory Monty Woodward as their MP, and later for John Patten, are for the first time in 20 years looking at a Conservative with something approaching fondness. There may be an element of local pride — Mr Cameron holds the neighbouring seat of Witney — but there is more to it than that. Mr Cameron is the sort of Tory that used to exist in droves. He is nice. He is liberal. He is well-bred. One can imagine him coming round for tea.
After long years of pitying glances, it is almost socially acceptable to be a Tory in North Oxford; yet even on the verge of final acceptance I find I am thwarted. For it is one thing to be a Tory, another to write a column for the hated Daily Mail. And to write an article in that paper suggesting that Mr Cameron would be wise to come clean about whether or not he has ever taken drugs — well, such an act is as heinous as it is incredible. My Irish setter and I have been shunned in the parks. My newsagent, as he dispenses copies of the Guardian and the Independent to hungry locals, looks at me with repugnance and disbelief.
Fifty-seven miles away the real Cameronians are euphoric, not only because their boy is going to be the next leader of the Tory party, and no doubt one day prime minister of Great Britain, but also because they believe that they have humbled the overmighty Daily Mail. In a full-page editorial, the newspaper called on Mr Cameron to come clean over drugs. He not only refused to take this advice; he won more votes among MPs than expected. Columnists and leader writers in the liberal press praised his stand. Meanwhile the Mail’s own favoured candidate, the ‘big beast’ Kenneth Clarke, landed on his face at the first fence. Among Mr Cameron’s wilder advisers — who in the Mail’s fevered imagination are presumably high on cannabis, if not cocaine — some are pressing him to break with the paper. The idea has already been mooted of making Simon Heffer (the Mail’s angry columnist, shortly to defect to the Daily Telegraph) the Conservative party’s ‘Clause Four moment’. Now the cry goes up that dumping Simon Heffer is not enough. The entire Daily Mail must be jettisoned, along with its petty bourgeois obsessions about crime and drugs and binge-drinking and immigration and gypsies and all the supposed ills that look much less alarming from the vantage point of Notting Hill.
Will Mr Cameron oblige? Not if he has any sense. Even before his spat with the Mail over drugs, he has recently made a few little swipes against the paper. He privately believes that Michael Howard was too much influenced by it during the last election. (We should not forget, however, that it was Mr Cameron who wrote the Tory party manifesto, not Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail.) He evidently resents the Mail’s campaign to make him own up about his alleged past drug-taking activities, though whether a few articles amount to a ‘witch-hunt’ may be doubted. So a good deal of resentment is burning in Mr Cameron’s breast, but before he takes the advice of his wilder brethren he should take a look at the arithmetic.
The Mail has a circulation of about 2.4 million copies a day. On the standard assumption that each copy is read by two and a half people, if you will forgive the idiocy, that implies a readership of 6 million. According to Mori, 57 per cent of Mail readers voted Tory in May 2005, which amounts to nearly 3.5 million people. At the election 8,772,473 people voted Conservative, of whom, it may be reasonably supposed, unless I am missing something, almost 40 per cent of them were Daily Mail readers. Of course this does not mean that they all subscribe to the Mail’s political agenda — the paper also has many Labour readers — but it is a reasonable assumption that they may be influenced by it. Only a brave man would seek a showdown with a paper that has very many more Tory-voting readers than any other.
As he is f
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 22, 2005