Cameronism a Deeper Shade of Blue? the Tory Leader Has Done a Brilliant Job Rebranding the "Nasty Party", but He Has Yet to Come to Come Up with a Coherent Political Philosophy-Or Anything Especially New. Richard Reeves on the Continuing Conservative Makeover

By Reeves, Richard | New Statesman (1996), June 30, 2008 | Go to article overview

Cameronism a Deeper Shade of Blue? the Tory Leader Has Done a Brilliant Job Rebranding the "Nasty Party", but He Has Yet to Come to Come Up with a Coherent Political Philosophy-Or Anything Especially New. Richard Reeves on the Continuing Conservative Makeover


Reeves, Richard, New Statesman (1996)


David Cameron, plus a sizeable entourage, swept past, drawing the attention of the senior Labour politician (now a cabinet minister) from our conversation. It was November 2005, and the self-styled " modern compassionate conservative" was on course to lead the Conservative Party. "Does he worry you?" I asked my lunch companion. "A bit, to be honest," was the reply. "But he's fantastically right-wing, you know. You should read some of his old speeches."

I did. And they were, indeed, a deep shade of blue. The trouble is that the electorate was apparently unwilling to make the same effort. Labour's attempts to portray Cameron as a right-wing wolf in woolly compassionate clothing failed in the face of his determined rebranding of his party. A Tory leader who praised gay couples to his own party conference--as Cameron did in 2006 -was hard to paint as a reactionary.

The other principal line of attack against Cameron--that he is a toff, out of touch with real people--has also foundered. The prospect of a prime minister and mayor of London who are old chums from Eton and the Bullingdon Club at Oxford may stick in Labour throats, but it doesn't seem to bother the electorate.

If Labour politicians were a bit worried in 2005, they are terrified now. Unless there is a significant change in the political weather, Cameron is set to be prime minister within two years. For a long time, Labour refused to believe that Cameron was executing a brilliant strategy to return the Tories to office by reshaping Conservatism. Cameronism is real--as real as new Labour, or the Third Way--and is likely to be the guiding light of the next government.

As a political strategy, Cameronism represents a largely successful attempt to detoxify the Tory brand. Andrew Cooper, the Tory modernisers' favourite polling guru, spent years presenting evidence to party elders showing that people supported various Conservative policies--until they were told they were Conservative policies. Cameron was the first leader to understand this. The first two years of his leadership was like a sorbet between courses, intended to cleanse the electorate's palate of late Thatcherism. It consisted of a relentless marketing exercise to demonstrate that Cameron was, variously, a "compassionate", "modern", "liberal", "centre-right", "practical" Conservative: and that he was leading his party in the same direction. At his boldest, Cameron has claimed himself as the true "heir to Blair". He and colleagues such as Oliver Letwin now audaciously claim to be pursuing "progressive ends by conservative means".

Now the bitter taste is gone, tougher policies on welfare, immigration and public services can be pursued without being dismissed as typical products of the "nasty party". Cameron was perhaps a little more explicit than he intended when he said last year: "We've prepared the ground by moving to the centre."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The success of Cameron's rebranding campaign, and his heavy reliance on Steve Hilton, a brilliant marketeer, has led a few Tories to dismiss him as nothing more than a pre-packaged, ideologically vacant product. A former minister, George Walden, has written that, in calibrating his position, Cameron asks himself: "What would Diana have done?"

Cameronism is certainly not an ideology, nor even-yet-a coherent political philosophy. Cameron himself, in his 2005 Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, explicitly rejected "ideological" politics in favour of "practical Conservatism". But the broad contours of his thinking, and that of the bright politicians and advisers around him, are now visible. Cameronism displays certain features: it emphasises the pragmatic over the theoretical; takes an essentially optimistic view of human nature; favours the devolution, rather than centralisation, of power; stresses social, rather than economic progress; and places more faith in society than in the state.

When he was studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, Cameron was enamoured of the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume. …

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