When Barack Obama first came on the scene, his supporters called him the “black Blair” (a phrase used to compliment him in America, and insult him in Britain
). But is David Cameron becoming the white Obama? Look at his speech yesterday
and it’s laden in similarities.
It’s all about the mission. Obama is not just running against Hillary but at the entire US political system. He seeks to tap into a separate force: discontent with the system. And as this is perhaps the strongest force in British politics (we’re about the only country in the world where more abstained than voted for the ruling party) then it’s a vein which Cameron seeks to tap. He tried a little in PMQs last week, but hit his stride in the Wales speech yesterday,
Consider the Obama-esque language. Obama’s slogan is “bringing about real change in Washington”. Not just change the administration, but the system. In Wales yesterday, Cameron called for “change in Westminster” and, like Obama, detailed discontent with the whole system. His other phrases - “broken politics” and a pledge to move from the “old politics to new politics” – are also staples of Obama speeches. Unlike Brown, Cameron is not lifting chunks of American speeches. As I say in the News of the World today (not online), the words are the same because the ideas are the same. Both have recognised the feeling of disdain/contempt for the Westminster/Washington system. Americans have always understood the importance of political framing. The Tories, at long last , are beginning to do so too. Cameron want to frame the election as Obama has done: a contest between a New Broom and an Old Hand.
When Cameron tried this at PMQs, it left the House in a startled silence – though interestingly Guido (spiritual home of iconoclastic system-haters) lodged his appreciation
. Now, repositioning the Conservatives an anti-establishment party is a big ask. But Cameron may succeed for these reasons.
1) His youth and inexperience count as a plus when it comes to cleaning up Westminster. As Obama says: “There are some in this race who actually make the argument that the more time you spend immersed in the broken politics of Washington, the more likely you are to change it. I always find this a little amusing”
2) The establishment has changed now. It is no longer men in St James clubs but the bureaucrats who have never had more of our money siphoned into their hands. If the Conservatives are true to their Burkean roots, they can say they don’t want to take power, but give it away – through choice agenda, the voucher system, locally-elected police chiefs etc. This is also the mission which Le Grand calls “market socialism” and has an appeal to the intellectual (as opposed to the Neanderthal) left.
3) Obama struggles to define what “change” means. Cameron does not. The empowerment agenda is meaty (schools - welfare), and can be easily augmented with parliamentary reform (spurning state funding, forcing all MPs to publish all expenses). Cameron has plenty heavyweight ideas, he just needs a good slogan. Obama has the reverse problem.
4) Just as Hillary has problems suggesting “change” is represented by a continuation of the Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton cycle, so will Brown struggle to present himself as an alternative to the Brown-Blair era.
5) Liam Fox is fond of saying in speeches that “I didn’t come into parliament to run public services better than the socialists.” A great line, which shows how a Tory government would be fundamentally different. It’s not just a new set of managers, it’s a new ethos of management where the user has control. Almost all Cameron’s people are signed up to this. It is the natural Tory mission.
Calling Cameron the white Obama will annoy him. He’d argue that, with his “Let sunshine win the day”
speech in Bournemouth 06 he was doing this optimism stuff long before it was fashionable in Chicago. Truth is, Reagan was doing it before both of them
. Standing against the system is an obvious strategy in a country that hates the system. If Cameron gets it right, this could be the strategy that takes the Tories to power.