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David Cameron: New Tory Leader

Simon Jenkins

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If the Tories blow their fifth leader inside a decade, they deserve no mercy. David Cameron is the best bet since Margaret Thatcher walked into a Commons committee room 30 years ago and moved Geoffrey Howe to tears. She was then an unknown quantity. So is David Cameron. She had to find a new language in which to address the public. So does he. She faced a Labour party that had lost its way under a tired prime minister. So does he. Cameron may have had a silver spoon in his mouth, but he has a golden chance in his hands.

The new Tory leader measured his sprint to the finish superbly. Two months ago he was a rank outsider. He saw off his chief rival, Kenneth Clarke, with help from his final opponent, David Davis. His Blackpool conference speech in October showed that he understood the value of oratory as a talisman of self-confidence. He went head to head with Davis on a punishing primary trail. Yesterday at the Royal Academy, in London, he took the crown fair and square.

Cameron did not put a foot wrong. He gathered round him a bright team who played to his strengths as personable and accessible, even when tormented beyond dignity by a tabloid BBC reporter. All temptation from the chatterers to declare his "substance" was eschewed. Like Blair, he used words as mood music, to indicate vision and sincerity. His acceptance speech was mere background noise to his body language. Cameron would win an Olympic title for platitude. He would make motherhood and apple pie seem like ruthless policy options. Nothing wrong here.

William Hague admitted on Sunday that he had become party leader too young, implying the same of Cameron. This is nonsense. The man will be 40 next year, four years older than was Hague and within hailing distance of Iain Duncan Smith (47), Heath (49) and Thatcher (50). A more substantive charge is how little he has made of those years. His curriculum vitae is depressingly like that of most Westminster courtiers - some dabbling in research, a bit of media PR, and time as a Whitehall aide de camp. This, not Eton, is the real silver spoon. When, we might ask, did Cameron meet a payroll? Where's the beef?

But this is old talk. The days when leaders needed to "do something" are past. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown brought no real experience of the outside world to high office, as is daily apparent. Cameron's unique selling proposition is quite different, and one that nowadays trumps any track record. He offers plausibility lightly dusted with charm. The tools of his trade are not manifestos and "worked-up" policies, but a pleasant face, a winning smile, some eye contact and cheery repartee. These convey more conviction than a book of promises. They snap the media membrane and get to parts of the body politic that mere words can never reach. Only losers underrate them. Winners let others deal with policy.

Cameron can now forge a coalition of his party's new and old guard, embracing such figures as George Osborne, William Hague, Oliver Letwin, Liam Fox, Andrew Lansley and David Davis. He will not be short of advice. But he will also have seen Michael Cockerell's savage documentary on Saturday on How to be a Tory leader. What matters most immediately is how he and his family can handle the heat of public scrutiny. Leadership in modern democracy is subject to trial by ordeal more searing than anything else in public life. Handle this ordeal and running Britain is a doddle. Fail, and all else fails too.

Substance will come in time. For the present, Cameron's team has digested Philip Gould's advice to Blair in opposition: fight in the centre ground for that is where the enemy must be engaged. Hence the vague talk of social justice, urban renewal and "society, not state". But avoid specifics. Take the cue from Classic FM's manic incantation, "Just relax". Make the voters trust you, believe in you, share your faith. Do not hit them with 12 things wrong with the economy. Show vision in general, not policy in particular. Winning elections these days is an evangelical, quasi-religious exercise.

I see no harm in Cameron thus imitating Blair. The formula works. Yesterday's speech was an eerie facsimile of Blair's epic at his 1995 conference. The two men are to battle across the Commons dispatch box, but the one has nothing to win and the other everything to learn. When Blair said last week that he hoped this "Punch and Judy" act would stop, he forgot that Major asked the same of him. The fact is that Commons question time is the one stage on which a leader can shine before his troops. It is his weekly Henry V moment. It will not be sacrificed.

But for Cameron the real enemy is Brown, presumably coming to office sometime in 2007-08. He is a man whose leadership skills are curiously as untested as Cameron's. His personality is no less obscure than when he became chancellor eight years ago. He emerges into the light only rarely, to gabble strings of statistics like a Treasury answering machine. Two conference speeches have come alive, but only for their coded attacks on Blair. Otherwise we have only rumours of titanic jealousies, grudges and stubbornness. The chancellor's biographers present him as Ted Heath without the sense of humour.

Brown's performance on Monday suggested a growing vulnerability. His opposite number, George Osborne, danced round him like a picador weakening an angry bull before the entrance of the matador. Brown and Cameron will offer a fascinating encounter. They are chalk and cheese, blandness and bile, candy and acid. Brown is the old politics, long protected by Blair's coating. He is all facts and figures, human nature wrapped up in a comprehensive spending review. Cameron is youthful. His politics are digital, offering pathways to the subconscious that Brown has yet to discover. By 2007 he will have had two years of experience in the job over Brown.

Thatcher in 1979 smashed the Labour party and thus made Blair electable. She still approves of him. Blair then smashed the Tory party. Something tells me he would not mind if he had made Cameron electable, a bizarre political compliment returned. British politics is longeur subject to periodic explosion. An explosion may be at hand.


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The honeymoon's over - or at least it should be. After all, we've had two months of it; ever since David Cameron wowed the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, the man has been carpet-bombed with love. First, the Tory faithful swooned for him when he delivered a speech without notes, then the media fell even harder. (Some suspect it was the other way round, with Conservatives only realising they had been swept off their feet when the TV correspondents told them they had.) Since then the bouquets and perfumed letters from the press have not stopped coming; the love-in has had no let-up.

It's not hard to see why. After the baldheads and retreads that have preceded him in the post, Cameron is exciting. He speaks fluently, has Tony Blair's knack for expressing potentially boring, political points in loose, human language and is, as you will now have read a zillion times, fit and young.

More importantly, he has understood the importance of shedding his party's culturally conservative baggage - the Norman Tebbit inheritance that made the Tories seem perennially nasty and out of touch. Yesterday he said all the right things, condemning the Conservatives' dominance by white males as "scandalous" and insisting that he loves this country "as it is, not as it was". In one of his best lines, used before, he faulted Labour's top-down habits while simultaneously taking on the great she-elephant herself, declaring: "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state."

So there are plenty of reasons why Tories should be excited. Even Labourites can allow themselves a small smile of satisfaction. If the measure of Margaret Thatcher's success was the extent to which she changed the Labour party, then it is a tribute to Labour that the Tories feel they have to walk and talk like centrists to stand a chance of power.

But that should be the limit of it. Progressives should start telling the media: enough of the infatuation - it's getting embarrassing. For a "compassionate conservative", as Cameron styles himself, is not a new creation. We have seen one before - and his name was George Bush.

He too knew how to talk nice -"No child left behind" he promised in 2000, usually surrounded by plenty of telegenic black and female faces - but once he had installed himself in power, he was as ruthless a rightwinger as any Republican in history.

Cameron is no chum of Bush - and the president is unlikely to alienate Blair by getting too cosy with him now - but the parallel is not entirely bogus. For one thing, Cameron too is surrounded by ideological neoconservatives, his campaign manager and shadow chancellor George Osborne chief among them. Cameron strongly backed the Iraq war while his allies, Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey, last month founded the Henry Jackson Society, named after the late US senator who is the patron saint of neoconservatism.

It's all of a piece with a new Tory leader who wants to look and sound kinder and gentler, but is actually truer and bluer. Europe hardly featured in the leadership contest, but one of Cameron's few specific promises was to pull his MEPs out of the European People's Party grouping in the European parliament - leaving them instead to rub along with a few ragtag nationalists and hardliners on the fringes. Even IDS rejected that move as too batty.

But it is domestically where Cameron comes into clearest focus. Labour strategists are torn on whether to run against the new man as woefully inexperienced - or as a veteran of a discredited era. He was an aide to Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday and at Michael Howard's side in the dog days of the Major administration.

That won't necessarily make much impact in itself - but it might, once Labour points out that Cameron remains true to the ideology of that unlamented age. In four years in the Commons he has voted against every extra investment in schools, hospitals and the police. He voted against the increase in national insurance that went on the NHS. He wants to abolish the New Deal and undo Britain's adherence to the European social chapter, the document that ensures a variety of rights and protections for British workers.

Again and again, Cameron may talk left, but he remains a man of the right. The work-life balance is a favoured theme, constantly advertising his own hands-on involvement in family duties, yet in 2002 he voted against a battery of measures that would have extended maternity leave to 26 weeks, raised maternity pay and introduced two weeks' paid leave for fathers as well as leave for adoptive parents. Most striking, given his own circumstances, he voted against giving parents of young or disabled children the right to request flexible working.

On schools, he has advocated a voucher system that would send resources to private schools at the expense of state comprehensives. On health, he has argued for a "patients' passport", which would enable individuals to jump the NHS queue, partly using public money to go private.

It is on the economy, though, that the gloss should wear off fastest. Cameron talks of "sharing" the fruits of growth between investment and tax cuts. Sounds reasonable, everyone likes sharing. Trouble is, that diversion of funds to tax cuts would bite deep into planned spending: losing £12bn this year and £17bn next, according to Gordon Brown. That will allow the chancellor to use the same tactic against Cameron that destroyed each of his predecessors. Which services will be cut? Which school playground won't be renovated, which hospital ward will be shut?

Brown is already taunting Cameron and Osborne, telling them they have invented a new golden rule, one that will deprive Britons of the public investments they have come to like. Perhaps the new leader will return to the idea he floated three months ago: the flat tax. Or maybe he will listen to one of his own MPs, Quentin Davies, who branded the scheme "pretty kooky".

What it amounts to is a long list of contradictions, if not hypocrisies. Yesterday Cameron told the nation "everyone is invited" to his new Tory party. Yet he was the chief author of a manifesto that, just six months ago, played on fears of immigration and asylum in a way that could only make relations between the races more tense. He was "fed up with the Punch and Judy politics of Westminster, the name calling, backbiting, point scoring". Yet the previous day his closest ally, Osborne, launched a wholly personal attack on Brown that called names, bit backs and scored points.

Labour will have to decide how to deal with this, and soon. The next hundred days will be crucial; it is now that the public perception of Cameron will be formed. Within three months in 1997 William Hague was branded a baseball-cap-wearing loser; in the same period in 1994, Blair was deemed a JFK-style winner. Labour will have to decide its theme and stick to it. Brown signalled it yesterday: it is that Cameron is a rightwing wolf in compassionate sheep's clothing. He is the same old Tory, just rebranded and with a full head of hair.

Will it work? That much is a test for the whole electorate. We will have to weigh Brown's record against Cameron's panache - and choose. What really matters most in politics, style or substance? We are about to find out.


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  • 2 weeks later...

At the low point of his presidency, after a disastrous first year of his second term, his domestic programmes out of favour, his foreign policy out of strategy, George Bush has at last attracted an imitator. David Cameron, 39, the new leader of the Conservative party, a fresh face without wear and tear, unabashedly claims to personify the future. He seems to embrace aspects of Blair's policies, so as to present himself as Blairite without the burdens of having been Blair: a "reformer" without a past. His implied promise is to conserve Blair's achievements and continue some version of their logic, while casting doubt on the commitment of Blair's rivals and critics within his party. Cameron is New Labour without Labour, just New. But the strategy is not new; it is adapted from the playbook of Bush's 2000 campaign.

Bush confronted a popular two-term Democratic president credited with peace and prosperity. Clinton's vice president was his natural successor. Republican positions on domestic policy were almost uniformly unpopular.

As governor of Texas, Bush turned his inexperience in national government into a virtue: he was outside the fray and free of its rancour. The Republicans had shut down the federal government twice and impeached Clinton. Bush promised to "change the tone in Washington". He said that he was "a uniter, not a divider".

It was Bush who first assumed the mantle of "compassionate conservatism". He picked a fight with the draconian Republican house majority leader, Tom DeLay, who was against Clinton's programme for deferring tax-credit payments to the working poor. He also distanced himself from some of his own party's positions on social issues, saying that the Republicans had too often portrayed "America as slouching toward Gomorrah".

Bush appeared to reject the right-wing economic hard line, instead emphasising issues associated with the Democrats such as education. It was essential for him to try to erase Democratic management of the economy from the campaign. Under Clinton, 22 million jobs were created, poverty reduced by one-quarter, and the greatest deficit had been replaced by the greatest budget surplus. Bush fostered the notion that none of this had happened as a result of difficult policy decisions and that the economy ran on automatic pilot.

Bush's press conference to announce he would not answer questions about his past drug use and alcoholism made him an empathetic figure of his generation in contrast with traditional Republican troglodytes. And the attacks on Bush as shallow, simplistic and ignorant only contributed to the image of the scion as a man of the people.

In order to shift discussion away from Bush's proposals, which were not generally accepted, he strained to make the election a contest of personalities. Al Gore was painted as hopelessly dour, dull and dutiful. His mastery of policy was turned into an object of derision, a nerdy quirk. Before the debates, the formidable Gore was depicted as mean, nasty and unfair. Gore was finally goaded into taking the bait and tried to demonstrate his niceness by agreeing with the nice Bush. Clinton had advised relentlessly drawing the sharpest possible differences on policy but was ignored, and nearly tore his hair out.

Once in office, a closed, harsh and ideological president replaced the seemingly open-minded, tolerant and pragmatic candidate. But the palimpsest of the nearly forgotten earlier Bush remained to be discovered by David Cameron as a map to political fortune. Cameron's profession to be a true "compassionate conservative" is step one.


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