Moment of madness
David Cameron’s modernisation of the Tory party has failed. Just look at the debate on same-sex marriage
You can tell a great deal about a political party by the candidates it selects for a by-election. In 1987, for example, the Labour party proved its ‘red rose’ makeover was merely cosmetic by selecting Deirdre Wood for the Greenwich by-election. Wood, a card-carrying member of the London loony left, reminded the voters of the extremism Neil Kinnock was trying to expunge. The SDP-Liberal Alliance candidate took the seat from Labour with more than half the votes. Greenwich served as a terrible warning to the Kinnockites. It proved that modernisation must be more than skin-deep to be convincing. The voters can spot a spray-tan a mile off.
Like Kinnock, David Cameron sought to define his leadership by being a moderniser. In 2005, bidding to be elected leader, he told the Conservative party conference: ‘We have to change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity. When I say change, I’m not talking about some slick rebranding exercise: what I’m talking about is fundamental change, so that when we fight the next election, street by street, house by house, flat by flat, we have a message that is relevant to people’s lives today, that shows we’re comfortable with modern Britain and that we believe our best days lie ahead.’
So in February 2013, eight years after Cameron won the leadership of the Conservative party, who did they select to fight the crucial Eastleigh by-election? What great symbol of the new, modern Conservative party? Step forward Maria Hutchings. Hutchings is the Tories’ Deirdre Wood. She came to prominence for being one of those people who lose their rag on audience-participation television programmes and has to be physically restrained. Following her outburst, Michael Howard invited her to join the Tory party and stand for parliament. She moved from Essex to Hampshire to overturn Chris Huhne’s 568 majority. He increased it to nearly 4,000.
Hutchings’ rightwing views on abortion, same-sex marriage, refugees and asylum-seekers are far removed from the Cameroons’. So what does her presence in the frontline of Tory politics tell us? First, it indicates that Cameron has little control over his own party’s selection processes. The Blairites viewed important parliamentary selections with a very close eye. If a candidate was likely to embarrass New Labour, or drag the party back to the bad old days, they were stopped. Unlike Tony Blair, Cameron is weak.
Second, it tells us about the character of the Conservative party itself. Hutchings’ views are not an aberration in the modern Tory party; they are the norm. She speaks for the mainstream. Just consider the conduct of the debate over same-sex marriage. Cameron hoped that his pursuit of marriage equality would make the Conservatives look modern. Instead, he has shifted a rock and revealed all manner of slime underneath. Roger Gale, for instance, compared same-sex marriage to incest. Nadine Dorries said same-sex marriage contained ‘no requirement for faithfulness’. Peter Bone said the passage of the bill was his saddest day as an MP. Gerald Howarth confirmed what we already knew: ‘I am not a Tory moderniser.’ And that was just the MPs, speaking for posterity. On the chatrooms, in the Conservative clubs, in the saloon bars, there was a vicious reaction to Cameron’s stance. He may have thought he was dragging his party into the 21st century; instead he was building a platform for every homophobe and gay-basher with a blue rosette. It was less his Clause IV moment, more his moment of madness.
It seems a long time since Cameron looked like a moderniser. A long time since Norman Tebbit complained that the prime minister was creating a ‘New Modern Compassionate Green Globally Aware party’. A long time since Cameron declared ‘we are back on the centre-ground of politics’, since talk of the ‘big society’, greenest government ever and sunshine. Today, he looks like what he is – a traditional Tory, whose answer to everything is a smaller state.
So what was all that compassionate conservatism and husky-riding all about? It is clear it was merely a reaction to three election defeats at the hands of Blair. It was a ruse. To beat Blair, Cameron knew he had to copy him. The trick did not work, of course. The electorate was not fooled. They did not elect a Conservative government, despite Gordon Brown’s deep unpopularity. Labour tried to warn people. The much-derided ‘Dave the Chameleon’ character was designed to highlight Cameron’s willingness to change his political colours.
Cameron’s first paid political job was in 1988 in the Conservative Research Department. That year Margaret Thatcher had just won a third term. It was the year of her Bruges speech and the founding of Euroscepticism. At home, privatisation was at its zenith. Abroad, the Soviet Union was withdrawing from Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein was using his weapons of mass destruction against the Kurds, and apartheid ruled South Africa. This is the crucible which forged Cameron’s politics. He started out in Thatcher’s research department, and has ended up implementing her policies.
Big Society, by-elections, Chris Huhne, Conservatives, David Cameron, Eastleigh, gay marriage, Labour, Neil Kinnock, New Labour, Norman Tebbit, Tony Blair