Tuesday, December 13, 2005

David Cameron: The British Tories' new Wunderkind?

(Ed. note: This is my brother James's first post at The Reaction. It's great to have him here, and I hope you all enjoy what I'm sure you'll find to be interesting, intelligent posts.)

It seems the new leader of Britain’s Tories, the 39 year-old David Cameron, is already having an effect on the fortunes of his once-great party – that is, if you believe opinion polls. A recent poll on voting intentions by YouGov puts the Conservatives at 37%, one point ahead of Labour, with the third-party Liberal Democrats at 18%.

It’s pretty much a done deal that Tony Blair’s Chancellor, Gordon Brown, will be the next prime minister. But will Cameron be the one after that?

Obviously it’s too early to say, but the new Leader of the Opposition’s first performance at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the weekly political theatre in the House of Commons, was rather impressive. He has made much of wanting to end the “Punch and Judy” aspect of British politics: political conflict for the sake of political conflict (although it seems that this is much less of a problem at Westminster than in Washington).


His questions to Blair were level-headed and, so as not to disappoint his backbenchers (and also to irritate Labour’s MPs) there was something of, if not Punch and Judy, then at least an indication that Cameron will not make it easy for Blair. Cameron lambasted the government Chief Whip for interrupting him by “shouting like a child” and then asked the PM if all of the proposed new freedoms for schools would make it into the new Education Bill. In a comment calculated to infuriate left-wing Labour MPs, he told Blair, “With our support... there is no danger of losing these education reforms in a parliamentary vote” – this in response to a real Punch and Judy question from the Prime Minister in which he sarcastically asked Cameron if he could count on the Conservatives to support the government on the bill. To which Cameron replied, “Absolutely.”

Prime Minister’s Question Time is hardly productive politics, one might say. But I enjoyed it for the simple reason that the political scene has become rather more interesting since David Cameron emerged as a contender for the Tory leadership and began his extraordinary rise to power. There is something pleasing about the way he catapulted himself out of relative obscurity by a
good speech at his party’s conference – and a correspondingly bad (or at least poorly-delivered) one by his eventual opponent in the run-off, David Davis. More importantly, Cameron has that indefinable charisma which marks him out as a future leader of the country, something which none of his predecessors since Thatcher have possessed (but which Blair possesses in abundance). Finally, it really is refreshing to see a viable alternative to the present government, which has dominated the House of Commons since 1997. A democratic country needs a strong opposition to be powerful, as even Tony Blair has admitted.

Before we get over-excited (and, after all, this is a “liberal-to-moderate” blog) we should note that Cameron takes over a party in a pretty bad state. The Tories’ divisions over the issue of Britain’s place in the European Union are still there. And, oddly enough for a party that did so much to change Britain in the 1980s, there is a large contingent of Tories (perhaps the majority?) who seem to wish we were still living in some idealised past. The Conservative Party that lost the last election after a campaign virtually vilifying immigrants and asylum seekers was clearly not fit to run the country.

The question is: Can the Conservatives become Britain’s real liberal party? There is room for a party that wants to protect the people’s liberty against the state, is socially tolerant, and is willing to look beyond the state for solutions to the country’s problems. The Labour Party has in recent years revealed that its commitment to human rights is at best lukewarm – witness its anti-terrorism legislation. As for the
Liberal Democrats, the fact that they seem to position themselves to the right of Labour in Tory-leaning constituencies and to the left of the government in Labour-leaning ones suggests there is some sort of identity crisis going on.

It is, as Blair said in a recent interview, too early to judge Cameron. But his setting up of a
policy group on the environment, his support for the government’s plans to give schools more freedom, and his plan to increase the number of women and ethnic minority Conservative MPs are all on the right track. Blair must be worried.

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