Flickr/The Prime Minister's Office, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Commentators have recently struggled to define David Cameron’s mission in British politics. Before the last election, some argued that the coalition with the Liberal Democrats prevented him from setting out his true vision for Britain.
Others maintained that the prime minister secretly preferred the Coalition, precisely because he did not have a vision, and because it gave him an excuse to freeze out the Tory right.
This week, on the basis of close analysis and many conversations with the prime minister’s supporters, I have concluded that those trying to solve the Cameron enigma have been looking in the wrong place.
The PM does not represent, or even aspire to represent, a distinct form of Conservatism.The PM does not represent, or even aspire to represent, a distinct form of Conservatism. Cameron wants to be like Tony Blair. This is baffling given the contempt in which Blair is held by so many.
But Cameron slavishly follows the policies and the strategies of his predecessor. He frequently seeks Blair’s personal advice, especially over foreign policy.
This week has provided three examples of this reverence, which borders on hero worship.
The most vivid of these concerns Europe, and the staggering revelation from BBC Newsnight that the deputy chairman of the Conservative party, Lord Gilbert, has signed up pollsters Populus on a two-days-a-week contract.
Populus is official pollster for Britain Stronger In Europe, a group that seeks to keep us in the EU. This is the campaign Lord Gilbert will be working on – while simultaneously operating at the heart of Conservative HQ.
Lord Gilbert is the latest addition to the prime minister’s clique of senior allies who work alongside Blairites Peter Mandelson and Will Straw (son of ex-Foreign Secretary, Jack) on the ‘Yes’ campaign.
According to Tory rules, employees of the party are pledged to neutrality. This injunction has been strictly enforced as far as the rank-and-file are concerned. But it is contemptuously ignored by Cameron’s inner circle.
Indeed, when the official referendum is announced next year, there are plans for his Tories and the Blairite wing of Labour to merge in a campaign which will be overseen by Peter Mandelson in alliance with his new chum George Osborne. In an even more important step, this week’s renewal of plans for bombing raids in Syria is another version of the combined operation between David Cameron’s Tory party and supporters of Tony Blair.
Whatever its military merit, in political terms the bombing raids are part of a brilliant pincer movement between Labour and the Tories to isolate official Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is not in favour of an air campaign.
Let’s call this political model ‘Blameronism’ – a fusion of right and left, which has eradicated traditional political distinctionsThis is the emerging reality in British politics. The two major power blocs in the centre, Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s Tories, are indistinguishable. They share the same analysis of policy and organisation and yet crucially share the same understanding of the route to power.
This model was brought to perfection by Blair and was shamelessly copied by Cameron and Osborne.
Let’s call this political model ‘Blameronism’ – a fusion of right and left, which has eradicated traditional political distinctions.
One core element of Blameronism is a contemptuous hostility towards traditional party hierarchies and structures. Just as Blair marginalised Labour’s once formidable National Executive Committee, so Cameron has sabotaged the Conservative party. Both men preferred to put personal cronies in charge, rather than front-rank politicians with the independence of mind to represent party members.
This point brings me directly on to this week’s mounting scandal surrounding Mark Clarke, the prime minister’s senior election aide who has been accused (among other things) of sexual blackmail of MPs. Hard questions are being asked about how Clarke was able to carry on misbehaving unchecked for so long by the party’s hierarchy.
The simple truth is that the Clarke affair could never have spiralled out of control had a political heavyweight been Conservative chairman. Instead, David Cameron gave the post to his mate Lord Feldman, whose only credential seems to be that they were friends at Oxford University. This, of course, is an egregious example of the cronyism that so infected Blair’s government.
The appointment has proved disastrous – as can be illuminated if you cast your mind back to when Lord Tebbit was chairman of the Conservative party under Mrs Thatcher.
Tebbit faced a very similar problem to the Clarke scandal. A clique of young Tory members (including the creepy but ambitious future Speaker, John Bercow) took control of an organisation called the Federation of Conservative Students.
David Cameron addresses staff at the O2 HQ in Slough in 2016. Flickr/The Prime Minister's Office, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Their behaviour was arrogant and, in some cases, morally repulsive. A few of them (though not Bercow) wore T-shirts bearing the slogan Hang Nelson Mandela. Lord Tebbit spotted the problem and came down on them like a ton of bricks.
By doing so, he cut out a cancer which, if allowed to spread, would have made the Conservative party unelectable. The comparison between Lord Tebbit’s swift action and the lazy tolerance of Mark Clarke during the Feldman era is horribly telling.
But back to Blameronism. The fact David Cameron seems to be modelling his political strategy and outlook, as well as his party management, on Blair begs a simple question: why? After all, no former prime minister is as despised and discredited as Tony Blair is today, yet Cameron seems to worship him.
As the events of this week show, this can only lead to disaster. If the prime minister wants to be remembered with respect when he steps down from office, now is the moment to abandon Blameronism and attempt to capture the real centre ground.
That means restoring Tory party neutrality over the EU referendum, ending the love affair with the Blairites and returning to core Conservative values. It also involves – and this is a matter of urgency – sacking Lord Feldman before he inflicts any further damage.
Royal Mail's sold out to the dark side
The Royal Mail has issued a set of stamps depicting leading characters from the new Star Wars movie.
The Queen has been jammed into the corner to make space for Darth Vader and Yoda.
This is all part of pre-publicity for the Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens, which opens next month.
For more than 80 years after the introduction of the penny post in 1840, British stamps showed only the sovereign. The first commemorative issue, for the British Empire Exhibition, was produced in 1924.
For years afterwards, these issues stuck to royal events, national festivals or important anniversaries. Christmas stamps arrived in 1966, as did Landscapes and British Birds.
Winnie-the-Pooh and friends appeared in 2010 – but it was the British versions, as drawn by E. H. Shepherd, not their Disneyfied cartoon makeovers. Now, our stamps have become another piece of merchandising, and something valuable has been lost.
Britain’s most distinguished living political philosopher, David Marquand, recently wrote: ‘To apply the values of the private domain to the public domain is, in a profound way, to corrupt it.’
British stamps used to be an expression of national pride and identity. Now, they are just advertising space, on sale to the highest bidder.
It reminds me of the 1959 Peter Sellers film, The Mouse That Roared. He plays the ruler of a decrepit state called Fenwick, whose main income comes from selling misprinted postage stamps.
There is no question that Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation programme in the Eighties did Britain a power of good. But I believe it has now gone too far.
The government is examining plans to sell off Channel 4. Almost certainly, it will go to an American buyer and start to pump out cheap commercial trash. Is this really the kind of country we want to be? Welcome to Fenwick.
George's spy game
What was George Osborne doing at Cheltenham on Tuesday making a speech to British spooks about cyber-terrorism? If anyone had to make a speech, it should have been Home Secretary Theresa May.
Mr Osborne wants to be the next leader of the Tory party. Mrs May is also a candidate. Which is why the chancellor is exploiting Treasury control of the purse strings to score points over politics rivals. No Chancellor has spent less time at the Treasury than Mr Osborne. No wonder public finances are still a mess.
This is a longer version of an article that first appeared at the Mail, it is reproduced here with the author's permission.