Thursday, October 05, 2006

Substance abuse: Cameron’s serious problem

There are two misconceptions doing the rounds, as regards criticisms of David Cameron’s Conservatives.

The first is that a killer line of attack is to say that they are thin on policy detail. This criticism has been voiced very widely (including by me), and indeed it’s perfectly legitimate: if somebody aspires to run the country, we’re entitled to demand some beef about what they’re planning to do. But as there’s no election in the near future, it’s also perfectly legitimate for Cameron to decline to give more detail just yet; how he schedules his three-year campaign is up to him. This has pros and cons as a strategy, but it’s basically a fair call. And more to the point, as most people don’t fill their heads with policy detail even in the heat of an election campaign, this complaint is only ever going to have limited traction.

The second misconception (based on a related misunderstanding of how Cameron is changing the Tory image) is that the government has decided to attack Cameron for being too left-wing. Jackie Ashley gives an example of this, fearing that it would make Labour more right-wing.

More tellingly, George Osborne shares this view, and revels in it:

“Look at the attacks that Tony Blair made on us at the party conference speech. I thought they were so telling. … It was all you’re too left-wing now. It’s, ooh, you are not tough enough on terrorists, you are not building nuclear power stations. Every single attack he made was from the Right. And if that is the case, if they are helping us define ourselves on the centre ground of British politics then thank you very much Tony Blair.”

(Why do people think that harnessing energy from nuclear fission is a left–right issue? Oh well, never mind.)

First, the Tories aren’t as such pitching to the left to avoid being seen as right-wing. What they’re doing is trying to look nice as opposed to nasty (which is understandable). But this involves focusing on ‘caring’ issues, such as health, the environment, ‘general wellbeing’ and, er, hugging hoodies. This might make them look less right-wing in some ways, but as Cameron’s regular denunciations of the state show, he’s really not aiming to either be or look left-wing.

Second, Cameron’s Tories are not in fact coming to be seen as centrist, let alone left-wing. Polls last month by Populus and YouGov found that, when asked to give ratings on a left–right scale, voters put Gordon Brown and Labour as a whole noticeably to the left of themselves, Tony Blair fractionally to the right, Cameron substantially to the right and the Tories as a whole a bit farther to the right. (According to Populus, the Tories’ image has moved slightly rightwards since a year ago.)

Third, the recent line of Labour attack isn’t about left vs right. This is the Blair criticism of Cameron that Osborne so relished:

“His foreign policy. Pander to anti-Americanism by stepping back from America. Pander to the Eurosceptics through isolation in Europe. Sacrificing British influence for Party expediency is not a policy worthy of a Prime Minister. His immigration policy. Says he'll sort out illegal immigration, but opposes Identity Cards, the one thing essential to do it. His energy policy. Nuclear power ‘only as a last resort’. It’s not a multiple choice quiz question, Mr Cameron. We need to decide now otherwise in 10 years time we will be importing expensive fossil fuels and Britain's economy will suffer. He wants tax cuts and more spending, with the same money. … And his policy for the old lady terrorised by the young thug is that she should put her arm round him and give him a nice, big hug. Built to last? They haven’t even laid the foundation stone. If we can’t take this lot apart in the next few years we shouldn’t be in the business of politics at all. The Tories haven’t thought it through. They think it’s all about image.”

And John Reid:

“There are some issues so serious, so rooted in the very fibre of our national values, that we need to make the hard choices now. David Cameron may find that those who wait too long to see which way the wind is blowing, get blown away by the gale. And so the Tories end up talking tough, voting soft and hoping no one will notice. But the public has noticed what they have opposed: tougher sentences for murder, sexual offences, violent offences, dangerous driving, immigration, asylum. They voted against or abstained on all of them. Why? It’s all too difficult. Too controversial. Actually it’s because they are too lacking in leadership.”

Now, I certainly don’t agree with Blair and Reid on all the above issues, and I think there are a couple of false notes struck here, but I agree with the general line of attack – in terms of both factual accuracy and political efficacy. The criticisms they’re making all basically boil down to one thing: not that Cameron hasn’t given enough detail, and certainly not that the Tories are lurching off to the loony left, but that they are not up to taking tough, often unpopular decisions; they are more concerned with opportunistically pleasing people than with seriously getting to grips with the real challenges of government.

The ‘niceness’ issues that Cameron has been focusing on are all well and good (maybe chocolate oranges are being marketed too aggressively) but they’re not the major, serious concerns of security and prosperity that are what really make and break governments. A party can have popular health and education policies, but if it’s seen as not up to dealing with crime, the economy and (these days) terrorism, it’ll struggle to get anywhere.

In his speech, a strikingly direct homage to early Blair, Cameron showed that he is dragging his party into the 1990s. But times have changed. Since 9/11 and 7/7, the public mood is different, and the touchy-feely soft-focus approach of Blair and Bill Clinton in earlier days works far less well than it used to.

The substance critique is quite distinct from the points about lack of detail and about obsession with image – although both of those can feed into this. But this is the killer criticism, this is what ‘lack of substance’ really means: that they’re not serious about making difficult choices; they’re flaky, not strong leaders; they don’t want to get their hands dirty with the controversial lose–lose decisions that every government faces.

Cameron himself may partly understand this problem, and ‘addressed’ it thus: “Real substance is about… sticking to your guns. It’s about character, judgement, and consistency.” Moments later, he added that the “old policies” were “not coming back”. That would be the old policies from the party’s manifesto last year – which Cameron wrote. If he thinks he can call this consistency, then what does that say about his character and judgement? Merely stating that your weak spot doesn’t exist isn’t good enough. It’s just not credible.

The pre-spun highlight of Cameron’s speech was the NHS. He’ll be campaigning to stop the cuts, he says. But the cuts are being made by various local NHS trusts, because the recent shift to giving them responsibility for their own finances is proving hard to get used to. Now, if Cameron wants these cuts stopped, that amounts to politicians in Westminster taking power away from the front line – which utterly contradicts his often-peddled (vague) line that he wants to spread responsibility downwards.

It’s flaky opportunism, talking as if there are no tough choices. This might be fine for a protest movement but not for a serious contender for government.

This is why Cameron’s Tories lack substance. This is why they’re nowhere near being fit to run the country. This, if Labour can stop being mesmerised by showmanship, is how to take them down.

No comments: