The week the British political system creaked and cracked under the strain and embarrassment of the self-serving financial actions of politicians across the political spectrum saw David Cameron take his constituency roadshow to the county town of Arbroath.
‘Cameron Direct' (follow link to Tory video of the entire evening) is a Blair-like initiative which sees the Conservative leader tour the country - or the marginal seats of it - offering voters the chance to see him up close if not as he puts it ‘in their living room'.
Arbroath is situated in Angus, a Tory seat until 1987, and now a key Conservative target (no. 39 on their list) which they need to win to form a government and have any respectable representation in Scotland (i.e.: up to a maximum four seats out of 59 where they currently have one). This is a constituency held by the SNP's Michael Weir with a mere 1,601 majority which the Conservative candidate, lawyer Alberto Costa hopes to overturn at the Westminster election.
Held in the Old and Abbey Church Hall nearby Arbroath Abbey, long associated with the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, a packed audience of 180 turned out, mostly retired, respectable good folk of Arbroath, along with a sprinkling of younger fortysomethings and fiftysomethings and the odd one or two even younger.
Before Cameron got round to dealing with an hour long session of questions and answers, he declared that MPs expenses were ‘sickening' and that politicians ‘owe a big apology' and had ‘to roll up our sleeves and sort it out'. He had shown leadership earlier in the week telling his MPs that ‘they can't claim for food, decoration, patio heaters, furniture, and no switching of first and second homes'. And that was it for the evening on the crisis engulfing Westminster.
Three of the first four questions came from former marines, a reflection of the importance of 45 Commando Royal Marines who are based at RM Condor and have barracks in Arbroath. The biggest applause of the entire evening, by a mile came when Cameron launched into the usual tribute to ‘the debt of gratitude we owe' to our servicemen. The sentiment seemed genuine and the applause certainly was.
One questioner, one of the few twentysomethings in the audience, and a young Asian, who had joined the Conservatives at Aberdeen University, called ‘the top two Labour mistakes' the 10p tax rate decision and 50% rate on £150,000, which Cameron did not demur from.
Answering questions and points across a range of subjects: youth work, the scarcity of affordable housing, health, pensions and the banking crisis, what was revealing was how little Cameron actually said, or how much he said, how far he made it go and how little was in it.
Cameron gave people lightness, hope, the promise of a ‘fresh start', ‘responsibility' and even a bit of ‘more local decisions', ‘less top down' and ‘empowerment', but it all felt a shade Blair-lite. A bit Groundhog Dog; haven't we all been here before with vague promises of reform and renewal and little radicalism or specifics.
Only in a couple of areas did Cameron reveal anything. He was unsurprisingly in favour of an independent nuclear deterrent despite one questioner pointing out that ‘he couldn't use it'. He was also in favour of Trident, mobile armed forces and full air and naval support - showing that his much-lauded Defence Review would try vainly to avoid any hard choices and keep the vessel Great Britainism in business.
The other revealing answer was when replying to a local businessman complaining about regulation he waxed lyrically about the merits of deregulation. Government, Cameron stated should be about ‘ministers who wake up each morning thinking what regulation can I get rid of'. This seemed a slightly incongruous argument, but showed that the Cameron Conservatives are still stuck in the groove of politics and its clichés pre-crash.
No direct questions were raised which gave Cameron the opportunity to talk about the Scottish devolved administration, indeed he went out of his way on social issues devolved to Scotland to not talk about them in a devolved context. Strangely in a seat the Conservatives are looking to snatch from the SNP, Cameron made not one antagonistic point about Alex Salmond and his Scottish Government. The only mention they got was a brief mention of their policies on banning off license sales to anyone less than 21 years of age.
The good people of Arbroath seemed impressed with the Cameron Roadshow. Speaking to some of the audience afterwards they gave him the thumbs up and said they were more likely to vote Conservative after the evening. What impressed them most I asked? ‘His confidence' said one; ‘what he said about expenses', said another. When I replied that he didn't actually say very much, this didn't seem to matter.
Whether the Cameron Roadshow is going to be enough remains to be seen. It is not surprising that the shadow of Tony Blair hangs over the evening as the whole thing has been devised using him as a model. It practically feels like a tribute evening undertaken by one of those tribute bands that can fill out concert halls playing versions of songs people grew up with.
It will face an uphill battle in Angus, where a popular SNP administration and SNP leader Alex Salmond will see whether the appeal of David Cameron's Conservatives is enough. For tonight though the David Cameron Roadshow carried all before it, giving the audience just the right amount of charisma, charm and vague promises.
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and policy analyst who has written extensively on Scottish and UK politics. He can be contacted on: [email protected]
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