Last week’s historic victory for Barrack Obama has opened up a vital battle for the future of the right in the United States. The traditionalists argue that McCain failed because he was not right wing enough. They want Republicans to stick to their core beliefs.
Meanwhile the modernisers believe that salvation will only come if they stretch out towards middle America, and come to terms with the liberal elite ineffectually demonised by the McCain-Palin presidential ticket.
As David Brooks indicated in an astute article in the New York Times on Tuesday, the modernisers believe that there are lessons to be learnt from David Cameron’s reinvention of the Conservative Party in Britain over the past three years.
I have followed David Cameron’s career extremely closely since well before he became an MP in 2001. Worryingly for the Republican modernisers, the story of the Tory leader does not fit their thesis nearly as well as it appears at first sight.
Cameron was young, fresh, interesting, trendy and—in sharp distinction to most of his rivals—physically attractive.
It is certainly the case that he won the party leadership on a reform agenda. David Cameron was still under 40 years old when he stood for the leadership in 2005 in the wake of a third consecutive Tory general election wipe out at the hands of Tony Blair.
The party was in despair, and Cameron brilliantly spelt out the need for change. He also looked the part. Compared with the other candidates he was young, fresh, interesting, trendy and—in sharp distinction to most of his rivals—physically attractive.
Though sketchy on substantive policies, Cameron had a very clear tactical analysis. He needed to, in his phrase, “decontaminate the Conservative Party brand.” For his first twelve months as leader, he worked at this tirelessly.
He ruthlessly ditched the core policies on which the Tories had fought the disastrous 2005 and 2001 general elections—immigration controls, tax cuts, hostility to the European Union, harsh law and order strategies. Meanwhile he polished the Tory Party image, making it more friendly to gays, making much of lifestyle issues, and concentrating ferociously on the environment.
He sucked up remorselessly to traditional ideological opponents of the Conservative Party amongst the liberal, metropolitan elite. Indeed Cameron, who lives in the fashionable Notting Hill district of West London, convinced them he shared their values and beliefs.
On one level this worked very well. David Cameron is an appealing sort of chap—the sort of decent and upright young man every mother wants their daughter to marry—and the voters genuinely warmed to him. Polls suggested that the voters, thanks to Cameron, no longer saw the Conservative as the “nasty” party.
But by the summer of 2007 this strategy was going very wrong. The trouble was that, having thrown so much baggage overboard, Cameron was beginning to look very light indeed on substance. His party was becoming indistinguishable from New Labour. Indeed Gordon Brown, when he became prime minister, craftily picked up some of the tough immigration and law and order policies that Cameron had thrown overboard.
The crisis came in July 2007. Cameron’s trendy advisers had lined up a trip for him to visit the troubled African state of Ruanda in order to emphasise his credentials as a compassionate and caring leader.
Unfortunately, in one of those coincidences that prove that there is a Divine Being, albeit one with a very mischievous sense of humour, Cameron’s African visit coincided with tragedy in Britain.
Exceptional rainfall caused widespread flooding, driving hundreds of thousands from their homes. While Cameron’s rival Gordon Brown toured the afflicted areas, the Tory leader made photo-calls in faraway Africa. It was ludicrous. Cameron plunged in the opinion polls and by September 2007 his political career looked finished.
The annual Tory Party conference the following month was the most dramatic I have ever attended. Cameron launched a dazzling fightback. Partly this was down to sheer moral courage and brilliant oratory—he delivered without notes or teleprompter a superb 50 minute speech to delegates.
However, his recovery was also down to change of direction. Amidst much screeching of breaks and the acrid smell of burning rubber, Cameron executed a high speed u-turn. Back came the tough policies on immigration. Back came the pledge to cut taxes. Back came Euro-scepticism. In came pro-family taxation. In came new advisers, in particular Andy Coulson, former editor of the populist, mass market Sunday rag The News of the World. The love affair with the liberal elite, which had always felt wrong, came to an immediate end. David Cameron still believes that modernising tactics of his first twelve months in office were necessary in order to make voters start listening once again to the Tories. He says that it really was essential to decontaminate the Tory brand.
Perhaps it was. What is unquestionably the case, however, is that the David Cameron who will fight the next election is a traditional, right-wing Tory, fiscally Conservative, anti-immigration, tough on crime, pro-family values, euro-sceptic. Don’t be fooled by the angelic butter-won’t-melt-in-my-mouth packaging. It is entirely misleading. The real David Cameron is a traditional Tory.
Peter Oborne is Political Columnist for the Daily Mail. His book, The Triumph of the Political Class, was published in paperback by Simon & Schuster on November 4th.