Since David Cameron announced plans to change the Conservative party’s logo, derisive suggestions have come pouring in. A white flag to depict ideological surrender, perhaps, a spinning weathervane or a sinking Titanic. There have been so many spoofs that the favourite to succeed the ‘torch of freedom’ — a green tree — also looks like a hoax. It is intended to represent security, environmentalism and Englishness. It is simply bad luck that it is so similar to the national flag of Lebanon.
Perhaps there is a subliminal message here. Last weekend, Mr Cameron firmly backed William Hague in saying that ‘elements of the Israeli response [to Hezbollah] were disproportionate... and I think the Prime Minister should have said that’. His point was quite clear: Labour may not be prepared to criticise Israeli excesses, but the Conservatives now are — and thus, according to the polls, stand alongside 63 per cent of the British public.
Before he left for the Corfu villa where he is holidaying with Andrew Feldman, his friend and fundraiser, Mr Cameron took a call from one of his advisers. ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Are you prepared for the backlash that will now follow?’ He laughed it off, saying he and Mr Hague spoke as unshakeable, but candid, friends of Israel. And almost no one in the party, he said, was angry.
It is a peculiar trademark of the Middle East conflict that sympathies are ascertained not by the logic expressed but by the vocabulary used. Are bombs being dropped by the Israeli air force, or Israeli warplanes? Were the Israeli soldiers ‘captured’ or ‘kidnapped’? But the political litmus test, recognised from Canberra to Washington, is whether or not Israel’s military response can be described as ‘disproportionate’.
In itself, the term is seldom applied to countries at war. When 19 Arabs hijacked four planes on 11 September 2001, the West deposed the government of Afghanistan — hardly a proportionate response. Mr Blair has studiously avoided it, as have his counterparts in Canada, Australia and America. Almost everyone who opposed the last Iraq war, from Iran to the Swedish Prime Minister, has pointedly used it.
Mr Hague flatly rejects such categorisation, saying he genuinely fears that heavy-handed Israeli military response will give its enemies a propaganda victory. His is an independent Conservative foreign policy, he says, forged not by pro-Arab advisers but by daily conversations with Mr Cameron. Critics had better get used to it.
Rebellion is hard to detect in a parliamentary recess. Discontent does not echo around the Commons tearoom, and it is quite possible that Mr Cameron went on holiday believing the official party line: that there is no disquiet. Yet a group of backbench MPs preparing to register formal protests with the chief whip. Some party donors — I am told of at least three — have already threatened to withhold money. What started in a letter to The Spectator last week by Lord Kalms, former party treasurer, is quietly mutating into a wider party revolt.
Of the £12 million the party normally raises each year (£25 million in an election year), it estimates that about a tenth comes from donors who are Jewish or have Jewish associations — but the disquiet is not just about Israel. It is the feeling that the Tories have now abandoned so many core causes that the party is no longer worth supporting. The position on Israel has been sacrificed on the altar of opinion-poll research, for tactical advantage.
There is a striking amount of disquiet among the new intake of MPs. Several have visited Israel already on trips organised by the Conservative Friends of Israel, a group whose events are attended by more Tory backbenchers than any other. Their strategy is to stay quiet now, and hope that Mr Cameron can be persuaded that he is on the brink of a very large mistake.
Donors are less loyal. ‘This is the latest in a long line of rebuttals for people like us, and the things we believe in,’ one of its most generous supporters told me. For much of this year, such discontent was answered by the remarkable opinion-poll lead — as much as 10 per cent — that Mr Cameron achieved over Labour. But this has been steadily on the wane, and now stands between 2 per cent and 5 per cent — hardly an impressive result against an imploding government.
The last few weeks have not been good ones for the Cameron project. The A-list of favoured parliamentary candidates has been diluted into an A-to-Z list of 200 people — by no means all of whom are interested in applying for the vacant seats. Throwing the candidacy for the Mayor of London open to the city’s entire population has also been a humiliation, its deadline now extended until a suitably high-profile name applies.
Quietly, Labour has started to move into policy ground vacated by the Conservatives. John Reid, the Home Secretary, is proposing a national quota on immigration — an idea unlikely to come from a Tory party which has unofficially deemed the subject off-limits since the last election campaign. So for the most conservative line on immigration, go to Mr Reid. For the firmest support of Israel, see Mr Blair. For the most radical ideas on welfare reform, listen to Frank Field. For plans about how businesses should fit more showers so that cyclists can wash properly before getting into work, listen to Mr Cameron on Radio One. On the biggest conservative issues of the day, the most trenchant arguments are being made by figures in the Labour party.
An unfair critique, perhaps, but one which seems increasingly true to donors, and which Labour can use to devastating effect at election time. Mr Cameron can be portrayed as a trivial figure in a serious world. There are ways to rebut this charge, but discussing cycle lanes and party logos are not among them. When Mr Cameron returns from the Greek sunshine, a clear mission awaits him.