Simon Jenkins Posted December 7, 2005 Share Posted December 7, 2005 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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1660474,00.html Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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