Less than six weeks ago a threadbare group of Conservative MPs, from what one might call the boarding-school wing of the party, assembled in a small, air-conditioned room in Portcullis House, Westminster. Not everyone was punctual. The Commons was deep in recess.
The fifth Test against Australia was flickering on television sets around London SW1, Mark Nicholas saying, ‘there’s still plenty of time in this game’. But was there? September-heavy houseflies buzzed against window panes as the team supporting David Cameron’s bid for the Tory leadership excavated their ear wax and pondered a different sort of leader — in the Times. Not only had the recent article praised David Davis as ‘an attractive prospect’ but it had also said that Mr Cameron was ‘clearly failing to persuade sufficient numbers that his time has come’. Bloody Times. Tacking to the breeze as ever. ‘I thought Michael [Gove] was going to square them,’ complained one Cameron fancier. Ennui seeped under the doors, almost infecting all.
Forty days and forty nights later the transformation is remarkable. At 5.45 p.m. on Tuesday evening Mr Cameron stepped outside Westminster’s St Stephen’s entrance to the paparazzi flashes normally reserved for Hugh Grant at a Leicester Square opening. ‘Over here, Dave!’ shouted the lensmen. Dave. Good grief. Are we ready for this? But yes we are. A phalanx of young supporters pushed Mr Cameron forward, suddenly respectful, shrinking away from their chief, according him the sway and spotlight of nascent power.
The shadow education secretary had done spectacularly well in the first round of the leadership election, finishing off poor Kenneth Clarke. Moreover, he had landed within six votes of David Davis and wrenched the initiative from the latter’s fumbling grip. This week we will know if Mr Cameron has progressed to the last phase of the contest. It seems unlikely he will not. Indeed, it is hard to see how the vaulting Cameron, dreamboat Dave, peachy-cheeked poster boy of tomorrow, can now fail to succeed Michael Howard as leader of Her Majesty’s opposition. In one short month he has achieved — and for once the tabloid word is justified — the most stunning turnaround.
Much credit for the change in Mr Cameron’s fortunes goes to the man himself. Some can be reserved for his opponents and the media, not all of whom have distinguished themselves. The greatest factor in his bewilderingly sudden success, however, has been the recent electoral uselessness of the post-Heath Right. After three general election defeats the party has had enough of middle-management adequate, Dunn & Co-suited safe. It is ready for risks.
Tories are as dry as one of those hillsides north of Santa Barbara that occasionally catch a spark and turn into an almighty conflagration. They have been ignited by young Cameron and are flaming hot for him. There is even evidence the blaze could spread.
In the Commons committee corridor on Tuesday, after an afternoon of fetid speculation, David Davis’s supporters emerged from the count wearily to protest their ‘delight’ at the first-round result. They were not believed. DD’s 62 votes were short of what we had long been told to expect. Since July — or was it even earlier? — we had been assured that the man with the bust nose would cream it. Any MP who voted for alternative candidates was the equivalent of butcher’s chitterlings. So what happened, guys?
Had Mr Davis’s strategists studied recent Conservative leadership election history, they might have seen that one of Michael Portillo’s worst mistakes in 2001 was to allow lieutenants to appear cocksure, particularly towards younger members of the parliamentary party. A senior figure in Mr Portillo’s team was Andrew Mackay, MP for Bracknell. This time Mr Mackay, alongside hairy-palmed operators such as Derek Conway and Greg Knight, has been rooting for Mr Davis. In any ecological food chain this trio could be identified quickly as natural predators. They crunch waverers in their teeth like a Frenchman devouring ortolan. But hard whipping is a flawed art in a secret ballot. Mr Portillo learnt that four years ago and Mr Davis has rediscovered it this week.
Back in mid-September the Cameron lot were certainly moribund. No one seemed to be placing any purposeful telephone calls. Mr Cameron was making the occasional speech but Mr Clarke was making better ones. Some observers suggested it was only a matter of days before Mr Cameron withdrew from the race to support Ken.
By the the morning of 29 September, as reporters gathered in a rotunda off Whitehall for Mr Cameron’s campaign launch, the Etonian’s friends did not have great hopes of success. Ten minutes before the event Hugo Swire straightened the empty chairs with a valiant optimism and Andrew Robathan clicked his fingers with martial efficiency, but the Jean Michel Jarre-style aromatherapy music playing in the cool blue-lined venue could have been there to soothe the Notting Hillites as they slipped into a dream of lost opportunities.
Two things altered that. The first was the frumpish, pedestrian launch held by Mr Davis 200 yards away in Westminster, just an hour earlier. The flavour had been provincial, dull, a throwback to early John Major. The second factor was the fresh, energetic performance of Mr Cameron himself. By sheer personality, aided by the pizzazz of leggy young women and the absence of an autocue, the fluent, earnest candidate won sudden and unexpected admiration from the media pack. He flirted with the cameras, pushed forward his long legs, and creased his eyebrows in the most comely way. Most of all he was new.
Blackpool followed. Mr Cameron repeated the formula from his launch and the party matrons swooned. The moment he invited his elegant wife Samantha to join him on stage was, for some of us, the most daring moment of the speech. It was so blatantly Blairite and prime ministerial. He really did seem to think he could win this thing. Mr Clarke, again, made the better speech in the conference hall but he lacked the novelty.
It was at a fringe meeting in Blackpool that Mr Cameron was asked the drugs question by that most liberal (but New Labour) of smokers, Andrew Rawnsley. No one gave it more than a moment’s thought at first until another grandee of tolerance, Andrew Marr, revisited the matter in his Sunday morning television programme. Fleet Street piled in.
The drugs story helped Mr Cameron enormously. It forced bystanders to reach a decision, not only about this pretty young man but also about the sort of Conservative party they wanted and expected. Thanks to the bullying of Messrs Rawnsley and Marr he was able to present himself as a victim. The Daily Mail seized on the drugs yarn with all the energy of a frisky labrador and Mr Cameron’s people started to speak of a smear campaign by the Clarke-leaning Mail group. Although utter balls, this was not a bad position to adopt. Mr Cameron was proving to be almost as shrewd and canny as he was photogenic. Last Thursday, in the third major outing of his campaign, Mr Cameron appeared on BBC1’s Question Time, broadcast from the non-Tory North East. The drugs thing took up much of the show and Mr Cameron charmed and soothed the audience, who by the end were calling him by his Christian name. There is only one other politician they do that to as easily. Tony.
By Tuesday morning it was not hard to find supporters of Mr Davis who were privately scornful of their candidate and his campaign. The shadow home secretary had been advised repeatedly not to allow his seconds to try to capitalise on Mr Cameron’s ‘drugs’ problem, yet candidate Davis himself seemed to do just that in a television interview on ITV and in an article in the Evening Standard. Before Tuesday’s
count one Davis backer, a core member of his morning briefings, suggested that his man’s vote was crumbling fast. The beneficiary was not only Liam Fox; Mr Cameron was picking up a few, too.
At times such as these, when a story moves fast, perceived wisdom can be mistaken for proper opinion. This is almost certainly the case with the argument that Mr Cameron has no ‘substance’ (dread word). Cheerleaders for New Labour — the Times, inevitably, was already at it on Wednesday — complain that Mr Cameron lacks a ‘strategic vision’ and that he has no idea of what he thinks about public services and other matters of government policy. Not only is this unlikely to be true, given that Mr Cameron devised much of the Tories’ manifesto earlier this year, it is also unimportant at this stage in proceedings.
The diaries of Lance Price, the former 10 Downing Street aide, recently showed that Mr Blair has often dreamed up policy mere moments before entering a television studio. Last month the same Mr Blair did a volte face on his council tax policy. This very week the government has changed its thinking on public sector pensions. When policy can so easily be changed, is it such a vital electoral consideration? At this stage in the political cycle there are not many voters beseeching the opposition to publish its next manifesto. What they want is a Tory leader they like and whom they think they can trust.
Last weekend, at a coffee morning in Herefordshire, my wife, who on seeing Mr Cameron’s Question Time performance had instantly become a flutter-hearted devotee, conducted a straw poll. More than 90 per cent of the 50 or so guests declared their support for either Ken Clarke or David Cameron. Women, on hearing the name of Mr Cameron, were almost instant in their declaration of support. He may have slicked hair, he may have had an elite education, but he is plausible and he is accessible. Messrs Davis and Fox, for all their numerous merits, are not so attractive to the lay public. They haven’t got ‘it’.
Bitterness will follow. A leading member of Mr Cameron’s circle can already be heard saying distinctly unkind things about Damian Green, that soapy progressive who came out as a Davis supporter. This may be terribly unfair, but Mr Green is suspected of some aggressive anti-Cameron scuttlebutt. Mr Davis, for all his languor, may not find it easy to accept defeat. The adopted child never welcomes any echo of rejection.
Relations between the Fox and Cameron camps are interesting. The two principals are tennis partners and, being closer to one another in age, have a generational affinity. It may be rash to predict what will happen but it is not impossible that Mr Fox, if knocked out in the second round, could announce his support for Mr Cameron rather than his ideological soulmate Mr Davis.
Just six extraordinary weeks have passed since that doleful meeting in Portcullis House, when all seemed lost. The late autumn houseflies have not yet even buzzed their last. Yet in that same period the stodgy old Conservative party may have stumbled on the greatest vote-winner since Tony Blair. Happy times.