Last chance in the Cameroon saloon?
Cameron's chance to woo his base and the country will prove tricky this week.
Arriving in Birmingham this week, David Cameron is facing his first ever conference as leader that is out of his control.
Looking back at over half a decade of Dave, it is clear that the reins of party conference are this year grasped more loosely by the leader – despite the increasingly desperate attempts to stay the course.
In 2006, Cameron’s shiny new leadership resulted not only in the party footsoldiers falling in line ready for battle, but in that year, Dave also succeeded in attracting thousands of new party members, including at the time, the two writers of this very article you read.
It was a simpler time for the party. Government, though the very point of party politics, has complicated Cameron’s leadership, in no small part thanks to coalition government.
In the early days, even the press cut Dave some slack as he unveiled his shiny new Tory tree logo and set out on a mission to detoxify a party that had languished in opposition for almost a decade.
2007 brought the Osborne inheritance tax pledge that saw off an election. The party was now racking up the wins and forcing Labour to stare into the abyss of its first election defeat in three parliaments. Dave was on a roll.
Then came the collapse of Western society, coinciding with conference season. As a result, Tory conference snuck mostly under the radar, which is never a bad thing. But this was the year when the Tories took Crewe and Nantwich and burnished their electoral credentials by shoring up the safe seat of Henley-on-Thames after Boris hopped on the train to London to become the Mayor of the greatest city in the world. It was a very good year.
By 2009, light at the end of the tunnel was visible. An election loomed large and loyalty to the leader was therefore unquestioning.
While a sad year for Cameron personally due to the death of his son Ivan, the leader rose to the challenge of keeping Labour on the ropes. He coined the idea of Brown’s government being lackluster and zombie-like. Patience was now all that was required from the party.
2010 was the year that swept, albeit in a stuttered manner, Cameron and his party back into government. In 2010 as in 2011, Tories seemed so happy to be back in power, at a high price mind, the buzz of being able to introduce the party leader as the Prime Minister seemed to put off any worries at the back of Tory minds. The King was dead. Long live the King.
But this year, none of the above applies.
The fundamental dynamics of this year’s conference are unprecedented for Dave. We’re expecting a lower attendance, and more lobbyists than you can shake a statutory register at. But the party must still be placated.
Through his career at the top of the Conservative Party, these four days, once in an obscure seaside town, but now in soulless concrete metropolitan vortex, have shaped his leadership.
2005’s conference ‘made him’ in the eyes of his party and the indeed the country, but no one is really expecting that 2012 can do anything even remotely close.
It’s often said that Cameron is at his best when he is on the ropes, and while talk of ousting him as leader before the next election is well wide of the mark, the rumblings are growing.
When Cameron is threatened he defines himself. This has been clear in the past, not just at Prime Minister’s Questions, but at pivotal moments in his recent career. During scandals, through international crises and indeed in his most sensitive personal moments, Cameron has picked himself up, dusted himself off, and given his naysayers less to nay say.
It bought him the leadership in 2005 and bought him time against Gordon Brown in 2007. In many ways, the then underdog is facing similar challenges.
Underrated and on the ropes, he is facing destruction from an unworthy opponent. The threat of Ed Miliband is very much like the weak, but seemingly unstoppable challenge mounted by David Davis back in Blackpool seven years ago.
But Cameron pulled that back by detailing in with little uncertainty who he is and what he believes. In the noise of deficit reduction and much rumoured austerity, the rest of us have now forgotten who Dave is.
We know who his opponents want him to be and who the public are increasingly suspicious that he just well may be; an out touch millionaire Etonian who doesn’t just have a casual disregard for the interests of poor and working class people, but is gleefully stamping on them.
This is most likely nonsense, but we don’t hear anything about Cameron’s brand of conservatism any more, and thus the void is occupied by his opponents’ and colleagues’ words and actions splashed across the tabloids. From Nadine Dorries to Conservative Voice, the party is beginning to feel the dissent amongst the ranks.
Fear of upsetting the Liberal Democrat coalition partners should not come before smoothing party feathers. Since Cameron made his overt offer to Nick Clegg’s party, he seems to have made about a hundred more covertly.
Members of Parliament such as Peter Bone are often right in their analyses of coalition politics. The Lib Dems get too much for what they bring to the table. But it’s now impossible to rein the sandal-wearers in, and almost week on week we’re treated to a new ‘Lib Dem inspired policy’.
David Cameron, for all he has done for the party and the country, now seems ashamed of his politics and that could be a fatal flaw. He needs to use this party conference to untie the knots that he’s tied himself, his closest allies, and the party in. Only an open and honest conversation with the party can bring this about.
Cameron’s continued insistence that the Europe question be ignored is at the crux of this elongated surrender of control to his opponents. Look at the young Cameron’s election material from the nineties, look at the manifesto he wrote in 2005 for Michael Howard - it’s clear that at his core Cameron is a Eurosceptic but is so paranoid about showing it, he has let himself be characterised by the right of the party for having “gone native” This accusation by the way, would have been far fairer when leveled at William Hague or George Osborne.
If the Prime Minister wants to regain control of his administration and of his image, taking control of the country’s independence would not be a bad place to start. It would even likely win him that elusive majority at the next election that party hacks constantly look so quizzical about.
The time for pretending to be anything other than a conservative is over. In Birmingham this week, the Prime Minister needs tell us who he really is again.
Tories thought he could handle the public relations, but he’s up scrapping with his back against the wall now. His critics claim there is nothing behind the man we see in the media, If Dave cannot show them that they are wrong this week, then when can he?
Perhaps Cameron is not drinking in the last chance saloon yet, but he’s reached that point in the evening when thoughts turn to getting the last few rounds in before that bell rings, and the landlord announces, “Time, Gentlemen, please!”
Harry Cole is the UK Political Editor for The Commentator. Raheem Kassam is the Executive Editor of The Commentator
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