The Tories have opened the new year in a blaze of speeches and promises. But what does it all add up to? Nothing, says James Forsyth — and that’s deliberate. There will never be such a thing as Cameronism
Once more, search parties are being sent out to look for David Cameron’s big idea. They will return empty-handed. For the truth is that there is no big idea. However much social responsibility, the post-bureaucratic age or progressive conservatism might be talked up as the ‘big idea’, they are not it. Rather, they are a set of classic conservative insights updated for the 21st century. Cameron is not an ideologue but rather that very English, very Tory thing: a principled pragmatist.
‘It is impossible to understand David by applying any ideological spectrum test,’ warns one member of the shadow Cabinet. This is not meant in a derisory way. It is just that Cameron is not a politician who worries about ideological purity. As he wrote soon after becoming Tory leader, ‘I don’t believe in “isms”. Words like communism, socialism, capitalism and republicanism all conjure up one image in my mind: extremism.’
What David Cameron really believes is a question that intrigues even his oldest political friends. A while back, I was having a drink with two of them: one close enough to have been to his stag party, the other to play a key role in his selection as the candidate for Witney. We began to talk about what really motivated the man who is likely to be prime minister by the summer. Was it anything more than reaching the top of the cursus honorum? Both leant back in thought. Then one piped up: marriage and the family and education.
In fact, one said, Cameron believed so strongly in marriage that he had even berated his friend and strategy guru Steve Hilton for not getting married — and delivered this dressing down in front of a roomful of people at work. As for education, Cameron took that brief when Michael Howard offered him any job he wanted in the shadow Cabinet after the last election. So this, from two of the people who know him best, is what Cameron is all about.
But after four years as leader of the opposition, is there anything on either front that he can be personally associated with? All he promises on marriage is a vague commitment to recognise it in the tax system and on official forms. Earlier this week, Mr Cameron himself got into a muddle as to whether this was a pledge or an aspiration. As for education, Mr Cameron has not given a speech on it for two years. Why? Because his communications chief, Andy Coulson, thinks that the subject reminds voters that his boss went to Eton.
The obsession with winning the day-to-day political battles (a game which, it should be said, the Cameroons play well) has made them difficult to define ideologically. But this emphasis on tactics has created a new, longer-term strategic vulnerability: a perception that they don’t stand for anything. That Mr Cameron is (as Labour attack dogs like to put it) nothing more than a ‘slick salesman’. The irony is that their desire to dodge every attack line disguises the genuinely radical policies that are being developed.
At times, Cameron has tried to set out a credo. The party released a book of his speeches called Social Responsibility: The big idea for Britain’s future in 2007. The message made sense as far it went, but it was hard to see it as a blueprint for government. The party has also enthusiastically embraced ‘nudge’ theory — what its authors call ‘libertarian paternalism’, which argues that government should steer people towards making the right choices, not try to compel them to do so. So, for example, people would be automatically enrolled in a pension scheme but have the opportunity to opt out if they wanted. Again, a clever idea that is a useful guide in several policy areas: but not one that explains, or even pretends to explain, the fundamental question of the moment — how can the government best stimulate economic growth?
This desire to shut down potential lines of attack has also led the Tories to steer clear of close association with any thinker or group. There is no Cameroon equivalent of the Centre for Policy Studies, the organisation that prepared the way for Thatcherism. The closest there has been is Policy Exchange, the think-tank where Cameron launched his leadership bid and from where he hired several staffers. But then Policy Exchange released a report that proposed abandoning economically unproductive northern cities. The story snowballed as a mischievous media treated it as Tory policy. It led BBC bulletins, was subject to editorial attack in the Mirror and overshadowed Cameron’s regional tour which took in several northern cities. The lesson the leadership took from the affair was that think-tanks can be the source of unhelpful news stories, and are best kept at a distance.
As a result, Mr Cameron does not even have the equivalent of Anthony Giddens, let alone Keith Joseph, doing his intellectual bulldozing. Whenever someone has appeared close to filling that role, the Tories have grown nervous. At one point, the press was lauding the ‘Red Tory’ Phillip Blond as Cameron’s philosopher-in-chief. This made the leadership jittery. So when Mr Cameron turned up to launch Blond’s new think-tank, he was careful to say that he didn’t agree with everything Blond had said — or would say in the future.
Cameron does, though, come from a political tradition grounded in English history. He is a Tory pragmatist. He knows that nothing can be achieved without power and is relaxed about ideological inconsistencies. Take his differing approach to public services. On education, his party is offering a radical, supply-side revolution. But on health, the Tories boast of their acceptance of the status quo.
When he needs to, Cameron can do ideas. During the Tory leadership campaign he delivered the most neoconservative speech ever given by a British politician: it directly compared jihadism to Nazism and the present to the 1930s. But less than 18 months later, he was giving another speech explaining why he was not a neoconservative after all. The difference? In the Tory leadership contest, there were votes to be won in flirting with neoconservatism. But Cameron does not believe in it — it is far too doctrinaire for his tastes — so when that imperative went, Cameron happily discarded it.
Equally instructive is the Cameron circle — and its low ideological price of admission. Mr Cameron won the Tory leadership by assembling the broadest coalition of any candidate. His support came from social not ideological groups. He was backed by the Old Etonian bloc vote and the party’s young political professionals, those who had cut their teeth as special advisers, party officials or journalists. His staff today contains people who voted Labour in 2005 and, ergo, are against the very Tory manifesto which he authored. There is no ideological enforcer in the Cameron circle, no one determining who is ‘one of us’ and who is not.
So what does this tell us about the kind of prime minister we might expect after the election? The next parliament is going to be dominated by the inextricably linked issues of how to get the deficit down and how to get the economy growing once more. A Thatcher-style politician would start from first principles with this question: what conditions lead to economic growth? But the Conservatives have deliberately avoided getting into that discussion. Rather, their plans are a mix of fiscal conservatism, supply-side economics and political pragmatism. As one shadow Cabinet member puts it, ‘David has none of the purists’ delight in policy for policy’s sake. He just wants to know if it works.’
Baroness Thatcher was never as ideologically rigid a politician as legend has it. But she could still, as leader of the oppositio
n, turn up to a meeting and slam a volume of Hayek down on the table and declare: ‘This is what we believe.’ Her convictions were strong enough for her to push through a radical budget in 1981 that outraged conventional opinion — so much so that 364 economists wrote to the Times to denounce it. She was at war with conventional wisdom. Cameron will have no equivalent intellectual driving force when he contemplates the emergency budget the Tories will have to deliver if they win power.
A Cameron premiership will be a test of the utility of traditional English conservatism. If its insights are not sufficient, Prime Minister Cameron, pragmatist that he is, will become more ideological. That is the paradox of his pragmatism. But if Cameron succeeds on his own terms, if he is the prime minister who guides Britain out of this new spiral of decline, there will not be a creed called ‘Cameronism’. To create an ‘ism’, you have to believe in ‘isms’.