Perhaps the most pertinent message I took away from Progress political weekend (apart, naturally, from the fact that Lord Mandelson’s politically astute presence can command a room like no other) came from the Times columnist and Tony Blair’s former speechwriter, Phil Collins.
His time as an adviser to Tony Blair, in one of the finest and most effective communications machines ever put together in politics, would leave some wary of falling for political rhetoric. But his message was far more than that; it was more political science than rhetoric – this generation of Tories ‘grew up in defeat’. That is dangerous.
Their coalition partners are trapped in a worse position. They were conceived, born and matured in permanent defeat and political insignificance.
Why does that affect the Labour party? We should rightly be proud that we consigned the Conservative party to 13 years of opposition. Indeed, I didn’t really consider the psychological impact of opposition on the Tories until I was in conversation later with another speaker. He pointed out the flexibility of David Cameron – being nicknamed ‘Teflon Dave’ is a result of a succinct mixture of luck and political talent – was a significant factor in his party gripping tightly the reins of power. Indeed, it is one of the reasons we struggle to get our message across; we cannot simply paint Cameron as we would have painted Thatcher, Major or even Hague because he just doesn’t fit into one box.
Cameron will not be judged as the most ideologically sound prime minister; his politics don’t define his personality in the way some of predecessors were cursed. Thatcher the Second, he most certainly isn’t – and it would be foolish to pretend he is.
He can float somewhere in between the politics of his party – centrist and populist rightwinger, reformer and defender. He can appease the Eurosceptics while pandering to the Liberal Democrats. He can push for (albeit badly introduced) progressive initiatives such as the ‘big society’ while cutting taxes for the rich. He is remarkably flexible; thanks, partly, to the natural elasticity of government.
Initial beliefs from those in our party that he would be the most politically challenged prime minister in recent history were clearly misguided. The Liberal Democrats seem intent on bending over backwards to help Cameron, and he appears to need to do very little to keep them happy; a marriage of power which suits both blue and yellow. There have been no largely contentious issues for either party. The EU veto ended up, as expected, in not much fuss. The NHS bill is through, with no large (or small, for that matter) rebellion. Most students have moved on from being incensed at the tuition fee row. Neither party are willing to break up out of fear that the divorce will split both families for generations, something the Conservatives feared in May 1997.
The main thrust of the government’s policy is grounded in reform, not reverting to the status quo. There is a reason, after all, why Cameron and partner-in-crime George Osborne spent so long studying New Labour. Some reforms are clearly necessary and will leave Britain with a better standing in the world. To paraphrase Tony Blair, saying so doesn’t make me a Tory, it makes me a progressive.
There are plenty of ill-advised initiatives which Labour is right to oppose. There are also only so many plates a performer can spin. Eventually one of them will come crashing down. But until then, Labour must reshape the way the country sees the prime minister. At the moment, his own lack of political weight makes him, paradoxically, very dangerous.
Alex White is a member of Progress, writes for the Young Progressives column, and tweets @AlexWhiteUK
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