Alan Johnson is the Labour leader that Cameron’s Conservatives fear
I got the shock of my life the other day. Recording a programme called What Is Right? for Radio Four, Norman Tebbit, that pitiless scourge of touchy-feely tree-hugging modernisers, went out of his way to agree with what I had said. Three times. It was quite unnerving, not to mention flattering. But I do not kid myself about my role in this. The Thatcherite war-horse’s compliments were not directed at me, but at the man who has dragged the Conservative party from third-time also-ran to pole position in under six months.
In politics, no argument is as persuasive as electoral success. Whatever gripes Norman Tebbit may have, he recognises that what David Cameron is doing is working. And he is both loyal and pragmatic enough to realise that he’d prefer to see Britain governed by a liberal Conservative than by no Conservative at all.
In the run-up to the last general election and in its immediate aftermath, various small groups of Tory modernisers met on a regular basis to discuss how to persuade the Conservative party of the case for change. It was a dispiriting exercise. While Michael Howard had restored a vital sense of discipline and professionalism to the party, we knew that so far we had made little headway in persuading our fellow Conservatives of the merits of our arguments.
Yet, little more than a year later, David Cameron has put in place all of the key elements of modernisation: strong support for universal tax-funded public services, subordination of tax cuts to economic stability, greater emphasis on social justice, mild distancing from big business, and reform of candidate selection. And to crown it all he has achieved something none of us could ever have anticipated — a passionate commitment to the environment. He has done all of this without a major public row or shadow Cabinet revolt. He has not needed to expel any party member or fire any shadow minister.
You might think that Team Cameron would be tempted to relax, to declare that modernisation is complete, that the party has dumped the baggage that put voters off and can now prepare for government. They know that this would be a huge mistake: the Conservatives have reached base camp for the first time in 14 years and nobody blames party members for wanting to spend a few moments enjoying the view. But Team Cameron also recognise that a poll rating of 38 to 40 per cent is, frankly, not that spectacular at a time when the government is imploding on every front. Getting to the 42 to 44 per cent needed for a decent majority will make the journey of the past six months seem like a gentle stroll through the woods.
The first big challenge is the north-south divide revealed by the local election results — huge gains in London and the south-east offset by little progress in the north, especially in northern cities. Some on the right of the party argue that the ‘vote blue, go green’ message was never going to appeal to people outside the metropolitan middle classes, and are pressing Cameron to develop a harder-edged message to win over the people in the suburbs and small towns of the Midlands, West Yorkshire and the north-west.
But the problem isn’t the message: it’s organisation. The Conservatives did well where they had maintained a strong local campaigning presence in opposition to Labour running the council. But in large swaths of the north, the Conservative party has almost disappeared. And you can’t vote for a party that to all intents and purposes doesn’t exist where you live. The next big task for the Conservatives is to rebuild the party as an energetic local campaigning presence in every area of the country, particularly in places which it needs to win to form a majority in Parliament.
A permanent preoccupation and ever- shifting challenge is the Labour succession. To date, the Cameroons have rightly focused their attacks on Gordon Brown. Although their attempts to define him as the ‘roadblock to reform’ have had only limited success, there is some good news for them: research shows that people think of Brown as much more left-wing, not only than Blair but also than they are themselves. But while warning of a ‘lurch to the Left’ under Brown would taste very sweet to those Conservatives who bear the scars of his attacks from previous election campaigns, the worry is that Brown is too clever not to anticipate this line of attack and will therefore be planning to start his premiership with some radical repositioning measures — even a tax cut.
A further — and even greater — worry is the possibility that Brown might not be the Labour leader they end up fighting at the next election. Mike Smithson of politicalbetting.com has dissected the lessons of recent opinion polls about a Cameron–Brown contest and they are devastating for the Chancellor. An unbroken series of ten separate opinion polls by the three leading polling companies finds that Cameron’s lead over Labour widens when Labour is led by Gordon Brown. Listening to David Cameron on Desert Island Discs and then reading Gordon Brown’s recent interview with New Woman explains why.
Cameron’s musical choices and personal anecdotes were entirely authentic. No political strategist could have advised the Conservative leader to choose ‘Ernie, the Fastest Milkman in the West’ by the irredeemably unPC Benny Hill. But, combined with standard public-school tastes in navel-gazing guitar bands like Pink Floyd and Radiohead, it showed that with Cameron what you see is what you get. A normal bloke, decent, likable, quite conventional, who chokes up when he talks about the day he got married and isn’t too proud to admit to having a soft spot for something as English (and as naff) as Benny Hill.
Gordon Brown, however, wants us to believe that he jumps out of bed in the morning and struts his stuff to the Arctic Monkeys. If that were not ludicrous enough, he also wants us to believe that Gazza’s magical goal against Scotland in Euro 96 was one of his favourite sporting moments. The idea is so incongruous, it is actually painful. It’s a bit like watching a grizzly bear being forced to put on a frilly frock and dance.
At some point, Labour party members are going to look up from their internal squabbles and start taking these polls seriously. While the most touted alternative to Brown is John Reid, the biggest worry for the Cameron Conservatives has to be Alan Johnson. Like John Major before him, he is affable, easy-going, classless — and, apparently, without enemies. It is not hard to imagine a contest in which Gordon Brown and John Reid tear great lumps out of each other, only for Alan Johnson to make a late dash through the middle, emerging unscathed as the winner. Nobody is saying that Cameron cannot beat Johnson — at the moment the Conservative leader looks ready to take on allcomers. But there is no doubt that the defeat of Brown in the Labour leadership contest would remove at a stroke David Cameron’s best not-so-secret weapon.
Nick Boles is director of the think-tank Policy Exchange.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 3, 2006