Fraser Nelson

Signs of the changing political landscape

Signs of the changing political landscape
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So how radical is David Cameron? I  was on a Radio Four panel yesterday for “Beyond Westminster” (now online) where, for once, I was not the only token right-winger. It was presented by Iain Martin and had Bruce Anderson, who wrote this week’s cover piece about Cameron, and Jackie Ashley. I was begging Iain to introduce her as being from “the left-wing Guardian” to repeat the intro that the BBC so often gives the “right-wing” Spectator (“Warning: the views you are about to hear are not from the consensus”). Iain asked me if I thought Cameron had the courage and the character needed to transform Britain. I concluded with words of endorsement that had TGF UKIP choking (on another thread). In spades, I said. He can be not just a good Prime Minister but a transformative Prime Minister – and actually able to turn around all of the dreadful problems we’ve talked about.  

Even Iain seemed quite taken aback at that. But I firmly believe it is true. Cameron has the energy, the intellectual dexterity and determination to be in the mould of Thatcher and Reagan (not John Major, George W and Heath). For example, if he applies himself, he could transform welfare. The plan is there, IDS has costed it. A civil service is waiting to implement it. Schools reform can transform parent choice (but, as one of the architects of Swedish school reform says in the latest issue of The Spectator, only if they are allowed to make a profit). When Cameron is deciding policy himself (which he pretty much did in the near-death experience of the 2007 Blackpool conference, rather than relying on the utterly useless 18 month policy review that Letwin had commission), bold and visionary plans come through. They might again this week.

So what is stopping Cameron? Partly the obsession with tactics – which, as Tim Montgomerie said on the Beyond Westminster programme, might continue in government. Thinking not “what is good for the country” but “how would this position us vis-à-vis the Labour Party”. This has its place in the pre-election phase. But this positioning has already offered needless hostages to fortune, such as vowing to protect NHS spending. I had the feeling this pledge crept up accidentally, without anyone sitting down with Cameron and explaining to him how this pledge would affect each of the other departmental budgets. This pledge is now as big a hostage to fortune as John Major’s pre-92 pledge not to increase VAT.

So do give the programme a listen. When I started as Spectator political editor, Peter Oborne gave me some advice about debates. “If you’re invited on to a discussion, have a look at the members of the panel. If can’t see who the bad guy its, it’s probably you.” For years, it was true and I was on panels being wheeled out as if in some Victorian freak show. But things are changing. When I went on Question Time last week, Hezza was sat next to Dimbleby. “I’m in the centre,” he whispered to me in amazement on the way in. “I’m usually on the far right. This shows politics is changing.” Beyond Westminster was a discussion on Cameron, so the panelists were chosen for that topic. But the line of debate is changing. Ministers and Shadow ministers are being asked on TV “what would you cut?”

Cameron should, I hope, tell that the mood is shifting. As Labour disembowels itself further, this leaves room for the Tories to be more radical (as Thatcher was after the Labour/SDP split). The opposition has collapsed. The public debate is turning. A rare window of opportunity has opened. And this week, in Manchester, we’ll see if Cameron is likely to jump through it.