The perfect political U-turn is so subtle that it goes almost entirely unnoticed, as David Cameron demonstrated this week. He realised, well before the press, that a full-scale revolt was brewing in the Conservative party over his ill-conceived plan for all-women shortlists. So he abandoned the plan on Tuesday, but he did so using the sort of code that activists understand but Fleet Street cannot decipher. Cameron’s enemies stood down, his advisers relaxed. As a political manoeuvre, it was nothing short of masterful.
Initially the idea was to enhance Cameron’s modernising credentials by picking a fight with those whom the media regards as the bad old misogynist Tories. The notion of all-women shortlists, ran the argument, would infuriate local constituency chairmen, and this in turn would yield a helpful string of stories about young, in-touch Mr Cameron fighting Sir Bufton-Tufton. The BBC and swing voters would watch this battle with approval.
The problem was that Sir Bufton-Tufton was likely to win. It was clear by Monday that the constituency associations would outvote the leadership over all-women shortlists. Opposition to the idea cuts straight to the heart of Conservatism: a belief in judging everyone by their merits alone, and a belief that one should not demean women by tokenism. It is a matter of deep Tory pride that Baroness Thatcher was not helped in the slightest by positive discrimination.
To Mr Cameron’s immense credit, he realised this. Perhaps his greatest strength is his versatility. Politicians who are less intellectually secure become wedded to their mistakes, seeing it as a sign of personal authority. Mr Cameron divorces his mistakes quickly and heartlessly.