Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

Does the failure of the Daily Mail to stop David Cameron's leadership bid in its tracks mark a significant moment in the relationship between press and politics? Fear of the effect of 'dirt' on a leadership candidate is always very potent, and there has long been a belief among some Tories that the hostility of the Mail is fatal to a candidate's chances of success (this despite the fact that the Mail promoted Michael Heseltine in the late 1980s and supported Ken Clarke not only this time but in 2001). So when the Mail decided to get agitated about whether David Cameron had taken drugs at university, and then started bawling the why-can't-he-giveus-a-straight-answer routine, things looked black for the youngest entrant in the race.

But his success this week proves that he has passed a key test, and is liberated as a result.

One error that Cameron learnt from was that made by Michael Portillo when he tried to become Tory leader in 2001. By admitting his previous homosexual experiences, Portillo hoped to slough off the tabloid threats which had plagued him for years and get the credit for the 'honesty' for which the Mail always calls on these occasions. This did not happen. Those who had said they wanted honesty just called for more of it -- Who? Whom? as Lenin asked in a rather different context. Those who found frankness on such matters unpleasant did not like the way the admission amounted to an unspoken demand for approval, when they would have preferred to offer quiet tolerance. Mr Portillo's sexual identity became an issue which worried people, and limited his appeal. By not positively admitting drug use -- though not indulging in dishonesty -- Cameron left us the space to make up our own minds. If you support him, you don't have to say, 'Yes, I'm for druggie Dave, ' which would be difficult for some; you can simply say, 'I respect Mr Cameron's desire to protect some privacy.' So funky people think he knows what they're like, and the rest of us think he is quite respectable and restrained.

Even more important than Portillo, though, was George Bush. It was the way he handled allegations about his youthful drug and drink problems (much more serious than any of which Cameron stands accused) which the Cameron campaign studied and adapted.

Mr Bush's line was, 'When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.' This neatly combined apology with the charm of human fallibility, and avoided the horror of specifics. Admittedly, Cameron, unlike Bush, has only been born once, but his technique of differentiating his salad days from his current maturity still works. As a result, the Daily Mail is now in a weak position. Its third-timeunlucky candidate came last, and the likely winner owes it nothing. It will try to get its revenge, of course, and it is good at that. But if the Conservatives are ever to break out of the ghetto of opposition, they cannot afford to take orders from Derry Street.

The Pocket Book of Patriots was published last week. Behind it lies a tale of our times and, like so many authors' stories, of struggle against the forces in our society most hostile to good books (publishers). It all began when George Courtauld, a youngish headhunter, husband and father with school fees looming, was sitting on a train one day.

Near him were some jolly boys aged 13 or so with their grandmother. One boy had his arm in a sling, and his granny said, 'Move over here, little Lord Nelson. …

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