On Monday morning, a tense young politician was rehearsing a speech. The performance was less than fluent; the delivery was far too fast. The youngster’s peace of mind did not benefit from his growing awareness that he was being overheard. A number of journalists had managed to slip into the hall.
Twenty-eight hours later, the rehearsal turned into the live performance. David Cameron had decided to speak without notes or an autocue. The previous day, Malcolm Rifkind did the same, but Sir Malcolm has been one of the two or three best speakers in Britain for the past 20 years, since he was David Cameron’s age. When Mr Cameron dispensed with the normal speech-maker’s aids, which Margaret Thatcher always used, he was gambling his leadership campaign on his success.
Fifteen minutes later, the gamble had succeeded. Judged solely by content, it was not a great speech. No one reading it would appreciate its significance. But the effects outweighed the words. This speech was far more than the sum of its parts. It will go down in history: the national launch of one of the most important politicians of the early 21st century.
By the time David Cameron sat down, almost everyone in the hall was convinced that he should become the leader of the Conservative party. But opinion was sharply divided between those who thought that this ought to happen now, and the rest, who felt that Mr Cameron was a certainty for 2009–10.
Anyone who was solely concerned with David Cameron’s own welfare would obviously take the latter view. The lad is already formidable; a few more years’ experience would make him unbeatable. Why risk a premature challenge when events are so clearly moving in his favour? It is greatly to David Cameron’s credit that he is willing to disregard such prudential considerations. Although he would never express it this way, he has decided that his party needs him. As he believes that he has signed on for the duration of hostilities, he also believes that he has a duty to embroil himself in the thick of the fighting.
Back in May, I had a long country walk with David Cameron, before a relaxed lunch. Ostensibly, he was deliberating whether to run. He had no illusions as to the magnitude of the challenge. He also knew the inhuman demands that opposition leadership would make on the time of a devoted father of a young family. But he kept on neglecting to intersperse his comments with qualifications or subjunctives. Instead of ‘if’ he was saying ‘when’. Instead of ‘would’, ‘will’. The decision had clearly been taken, even if he was not ready to acknowledge it.
Those Tories who think that he should wait should now acknowledge their problem. By talking about 2009–10, they are implicitly writing off the next election and assuming that David Cameron will become leader on the far side of a fourth consecutive defeat. Anyone who claims to support a great national party should be ashamed of themselves for adopting such a wretchedly feeble attitude. If David Cameron is the best candidate that the party has, it ought to choose him, whatever the consequences for his future. The Tory party should not behave like an oenophile conserving his finest vintages for the dinner parties of the next decade. It should act like a general staff, picking the best fighting commander for the urgent battles.
One or two journalists would have preferred it if David Cameron had included more policy content in his speech. That was an unreasonable demand of a 15-minute performance aimed at making the earth move for constituency activists rather than setting out a manifesto. Moreover, it is clear what Mr Cameron does believe.
He is a Fabian Thatcherite. He thinks that, in normal circumstances, the state should own a lower proportion of the nation’s wealth year on year and spend a lower proportion of its income. But he would never support a slash-and-burn approach to public expenditure. He knows that Britain’s wealth is created by its people, not its governments, and he thinks that as the wealth grows, the creators are entitled to a dividend. He also accepts that a lot of them would only be happy to receive a tax-cut dividend once they are reassured that the public services are properly financed.
He would agree that Tony Blair was right to increase the percentage of gross domestic product which is spent on health and education. Thereafter, agreement would end. David Cameron is scornful of Mr Blair’s inability to ensure that the additional money is spent wisely. Indeed, Mr Cameron believes that New Labour’s bureaucratic procedures have guaranteed waste. He also thinks that Tony Blair has given up the effort to obtain value for money in the public services, and that this will be one of the most important tasks for the Tories’ first term.
So will Europe. David Cameron has always been a Eurosceptic, though never a Europhobe. He believes in a Europe of free trade and political co-operation; he abhors federalism. But he is far too intellectually honest to lull his fellow Tories into the fantasy of an à la carte Europe achievable instantly. He knows how much hard and prolonged diplomatic work will be necessary to move Europe in the right direction.
On both the economy and Europe, Mr Cameron is a real-world right-winger. After eight years in opposition, some of his fellow Tories have forgotten how hard it is to govern effectively. They seem to think that success is just a matter of turning political will into dramatic gestures. They have forgotten the need for relentlessness, detail, small print and incremental successes — precisely the way in which Margaret Thatcher ran her governments.
Many Tory MPs are so dazzled by the Thatcherite triumphs that they only look at the end results, not at the long slog which was necessary to achieve them. It took Margaret Thatcher seven years to reform the trade unions and even then she needed Arthur Scargill’s help. It also took long years to win the Cold War. As for inflation, that victory was still not secure when Margaret Thatcher left office. Nor should any honest Eurosceptic pretend that Margaret Thatcher won all the necessary battles on Europe.
David Cameron cannot offer his colleagues an exciting policy prospectus. What he can offer them is an exciting politician. As he demonstrated yesterday, he is a big figure, even if still largely unknown. After his speech, I heard many delighted Tories talking about his personality, his powers of projection and his obvious ability. I could not share the excitement, because I have known David Cameron for 15 years. Those qualities were always apparent.
A week ago, his leadership campaign seemed to be losing momentum. Over the past few days, that has been regained. I believe that it will be sufficient to carry him to the Tory leadership and then onwards to the premiership.