Magazine article The Spectator

Alan Johnson Is the Labour Leader That Cameron's Conservatives Fear

Magazine article The Spectator

Alan Johnson Is the Labour Leader That Cameron's Conservatives Fear

Article excerpt

I got the shock of my life the other day.

Recording a programme called What Is Right? for Radio Four, Norman Tebbit, that pitiless scourge of touchyfeely tree-hugging modernisers, went out of his way to agree with what I had said.

Three times. It was quite unnerving, not to mention flattering. But I do not kid myself about my role in this. The Thatcherite warhorse's compliments were not directed at me, but at the man who has dragged the Conservative party from third-time also-ran to pole position in under six months.

In politics, no argument is as persuasive as electoral success. Whatever gripes Norman Tebbit may have, he recognises that what David Cameron is doing is working. And he is both loyal and pragmatic enough to realise that he'd prefer to see Britain governed by a liberal Conservative than by no Conservative at all.

In the run-up to the last general election and in its immediate aftermath, various small groups of Tory modernisers met on a regular basis to discuss how to persuade the Conservative party of the case for change. It was a dispiriting exercise. While Michael Howard had restored a vital sense of discipline and professionalism to the party, we knew that so far we had made little headway in persuading our fellow Conservatives of the merits of our arguments.

Yet, little more than a year later, David Cameron has put in place all of the key elements of modernisation: strong support for universal tax-funded public services, subordination of tax cuts to economic stability, greater emphasis on social justice, mild distancing from big business, and reform of candidate selection. And to crown it all he has achieved something none of us could ever have anticipated -- a passionate commitment to the environment. He has done all of this without a major public row or shadow Cabinet revolt. He has not needed to expel any party member or fire any shadow minister.

You might think that Team Cameron would be tempted to relax, to declare that modernisation is complete, that the party has dumped the baggage that put voters off and can now prepare for government. They know that this would be a huge mistake: the Conservatives have reached base camp for the first time in 14 years and nobody blames party members for wanting to spend a few moments enjoying the view. But Team Cameron also recognise that a poll rating of 38 to 40 per cent is, frankly, not that spectacular at a time when the government is imploding on every front. Getting to the 42 to 44 per cent needed for a decent majority will make the journey of the past six months seem like a gentle stroll through the woods.

The first big challenge is the north-south divide revealed by the local election results -- huge gains in London and the south-east offset by little progress in the north, especially in northern cities. Some on the right of the party argue that the 'vote blue, go green' message was never going to appeal to people outside the metropolitan middle classes, and are pressing Cameron to develop a harderedged message to win over the people in the suburbs and small towns of the Midlands, West Yorkshire and the north-west.

But the problem isn't the message: it's organisation. The Conservatives did well where they had maintained a strong local campaigning presence in opposition to Labour running the council. But in large swaths of the north, the Conservative party has almost disappeared. And you can't vote for a party that to all intents and purposes doesn't exist where you live. …

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