Try winning for a change
ON TUESDAY afternoon Sir Michael Spicer, chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee, will get to his feet in front of Tory MPs and declare the next leader of the Conservative party duly elected.
In the past the announcement has been made in a House of Commons committee room with a crowd of several hundred journalists, researchers and assorted hangers-on desperate to hear the result in the corridor outside. On such occasions a few grinning Labour MPs liked to join the throng and make wisecracks about the next poor sap of a Tory leader who had been elected to throw himself over the top and straight at the machine-gun fire coming from Blair and Brown.
This time it will be interesting to see if the Labour ambulance-chasers at Westminster are smirking. For there is about this week's result, if it goes as widely expected and as polls predict, a wholly different feel from any Tory leadership election since 1997. They look set to elect a leader who may not be a total dud in the eyes of the electorate and who might, just might, recast his party and make it to No 10 in the next decade. The climate has changed, a new era begins.
Of course, it being the Tories, the vote on Tuesday itself may be closer than anticipated. "The great unreadable bulk of the Tory membership," as a member of Cameron's campaign team described it, are not prone to falling for media hype and glitz (associating it with trendy London stuff and nonsense). In 2001 they ignored all sensible advice and plumped for the disastrous leadership of Iain Duncan Smith over Ken Clarke, then the biggest beast in the Tory undergrowth. So calamitous was their choice that IDS had to be bundled off stage and replaced with the nearest to hand old-stager who could put up a half-credible performance.
In the end Michael Howard did better than that, reintroducing some discipline and drive. He barely increased the party's share of the vote at this year's general election but a campaign carefully targeted at key seats slashed the government's majority, and on Tuesday - the Conservative membership permitting - he will get the successor he wanted in the shape of 39-year-old Cameron.
It is then that the real test for the next leader of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition starts. That is not to underplay the scale of Cameron's achievement since early summer in making himself the most interesting new figure in British politics since Tony Blair.
At a drinks party in early August, as Ken Clarke's potential candidacy threatened to eclipse him and David Davis was entrenched as front-runner, I asked one of Cameron's long-standing friends who was going to win. Cameron, definitely Cameron, he replied with passion. Come on, you would say that, I countered. But no, he was convinced because Cameron was convinced. His man had decided that the chance would not come again: that he could lead his party, reshape it and then handle becoming Prime Minster. That steeliness, when he was urged to jack it in and sign up as Clarke's deputy and then came under heavy fire over his alleged drug-taking experiences, surprised many who regarded him as lightweight.
To dominate the Tory conference in Blackpool on the strength of one 15-minute address without notes and leave the seaside as the likely winner was equally impressive.
But that was then, and this is now. As of Tuesday he is in virgin territory and up against the two most formidable politicians of the age: the Prime Minister and the Chancellor who wants to be PM. No amount of journalistic confection and spinning by his enthusiastic friends will help him if he stumbles badly.
It will be said from the start that his guiding philosophy is vacuous and his specific policies non-existent: a Brylcreemed old Etonian with more than a touch of the young Willie Whitelaw - in terms of the oyster eyes and relentless pragmatism - interested only in self-advancement and the glamour of power. He has himself to blame for this.
In countless interviews in recent months he has appeared to give new definition to the term "all style and no substance". If he had been asked to name his favourite colour, one imagines the answer might have been as follows: "It's too early to say. I'm not going to get tied down to talking about this colour, or that colour. If I am leader I want to look at all the colours available and listen to a range of views. Ultimately it is about judgment."
That is the caricature presented by Cameron's opponents: he is a public relations spiv. And that is merely what the Tory Right thinks of him. Imagine Labour's view.
There is no guarantee this perception won't cripple his leadership. His first 18 months can be split into three distinct but related phases. Stage one is the first 100 days when Labour will attempt to destroy him on the starting blocks. Within three months if he is perceived as opportunist, worryingly inexperienced and prone to lapses of judgment, he will be a corpse.
Survived that onslaught? He moves into the second phase, which can be summarised as making enough of Britain warm to him as a man of sound instincts. This is where his refusal to commit himself to on-the-spot policy makes sense. Instead he emphasises his character and judgment. The voter wanting to ditch Blair, but still wary of the Tories, might be tempted to reconsider if they trust and respect the man delivering the message.
If he is still standing by that point, he can put together a coherent policy programme which emphasises sensible reform of the public services and the tax and benefits system. Swing voters might tolerate radical ideas from a man who has established himself as likeable and a winner.
However, it is one of the oddest aspects of this 214-day-long Tory race that suspicion of Cameron is greatest among many of his own MPs and others on the right in think-tanks and the media. It might be thought an exciting moment in recent British political history: the Tories are about to elect their first leader in opposition who stands a chance of winning, but the spirit is one of distrust and nervousness. "What on earth does he believe in?" an academic of note, with impeccable free-marketeering credentials, asked me in London.
Cameron appears to believe, like Tony Blair before him, that there is not much point in being ideologically pure if you lose every election. In the 1980s it was the left who demanded purity, now it is the right.
It's a clich, because it's true, that politics is the art of the possible. So, while David Cameron might not be able to deliver, right now, stage two of the Thatcherite revolution, he might have the potential to deliver 50% of it if he gets into power.
All of this is dismissed by some Conservative MPs as a sell-out. Opposition has provided a comfort zone for many - leaving them able to attack Blair but forgetting that Margaret Thatcher was quite a pragmatist in her own way. "It is historical amnesia," says an MP close to Cameron, who goes on to point out correctly that the right's heroine did not stand on a platform of privatisation and ultra-radical reform in 1979. If she had, she might well have lost.
And running through Tony Blair's three years in opposition was a clear message to his party: "Do you want to win, or do you want to lose?" Out of power, political parties can deliver nothing. In power with a responsible leader and a fair wind, they can do a great deal, but not everything. Successful parties are a coalition of interests who accept this basic premise; without it they become a mess of competing sects (see the Conservative Party post-1992) and perish at the polls as voters give them short shrift.
Cameron's grasping of that truth, mixed with charisma, makes the Conservatives intriguing once more.
Of course, the smarter Labour strategists will regard him as eminently destroyable. Those around Gordon Brown say the Conservatives don't get it: the public buys into a bigger public sector and Brownism because it is the British way.
I am not so sure that is true. Britain is not the basket case it was in 1979 and the challenges for the next generation of political leaders are not as clear-cut as they were then, but there are problems aplenty.
The economy is like a smoker and drinker who has taken both terrible vices up again having weaned himself off 25 years ago. The arteries are starting to clog up again. He's slightly wheezy. He still feels fine but there will be a price to pay for his reacquaintance with bad habits. So it is with over-regulation and the increasing tax burden in Brown's Britain. This will have to be dealt with.
There is some reform of the education system belatedly taking place in England (though not up here in Scotland) but it is too late and tentative to tackle declining social mobility and help the poorest who are disenfranchised by the middle-class myth of educational equality. "Restoring respect" should have meant reform of our nation's policing with a zero-tolerance approach. Again, the failure to tackle anti-social behaviour and violent crime radically enough has hit the lives of the poorest disproportionately hard.
Whether you approved or disapproved of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein, our foreign policy machinery is also badly in need of repair. Sir Christopher Meyer's recent controversial memoirs lay it bare: policy run by a clique from the den in Downing Street and a Prime Minister fond of robust rhetoric but unable to ask the Americans hard questions. The rest of the government machine is hardly in the best of conditions either.
All of this needs addressing. It is far from clear that David Cameron has the precise answers to all of these problems right now (although it would be nice to think he has an inkling of an idea on one or two), but he is a figure that appears to have the ability to attract, hold and exploit attention. It is what he does with that x-factor appeal which will decide whether he is the man who remakes the political weather or not.
His core values - relating to the role of the state, law and order, taxation and foreign affairs - are not that hard to divine: he appears to be a Tory with a neo-Thatcherite edge.
And at the very least we will all be forced, Labour included, to challenge our assumptions of the last decade. For that reason alone it is worth welcoming a Cameron victory: British politics is about to get interesting again.
Iain Martin is editor of Scotland on Sunday
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