Yesterday I wrote a speech for David Cameron to give to the Tory conference next week.
People, including several Tories, were very kind about it, which is always gratifying. I wrote as if I were trying to convince me, so it’s nice to know that this old trick can still produce an interesting result.
I was asked whether, if Cameron could give such a speech, I felt comfortable putting it in the public domain. I mean, why give the Tories a good idea?
One of the worst mistakes in politics is to underestimate your opponents. I don’t just mean by assuming they are stupid, but assuming they are mendacious, incapable of change, or motivated by malice. (If I’m honest, the latter facet of our politics is one of the more unpleasant aspects of the Labour political style).
I think it’s good to sympathise with those you disagree with, occasionally*.
At the same time, I think David Cameron’s specific problem is I don’t think he could give the speech I wrote, at least not credibly.
This is because David Cameron has repeatedly had the opportunity to revive the centre-left of the Conservative party. He did not, in any meaningful sense, take that chance, as Tim Bale has argued in the Guardian and the IPPR.
Instead Cameron substituted political slogans for an actual political argument. Looking though the history of Cameron’s leadership, you can find a series of more or less attractive slogans (Big Society, Progressive Conservatism, Vote blue, Go green and liberal conservatism all spring to mind).
But within this multitude of slogans, there existed only one powerful political idea – “progressive ends, Conservative means“, which itself ended up being used to cloak whatever every type of Conservatives wanted to do anyway.
This was because if conservative means produce progressive ends, who can argue against the proposition that even more conservative means are not more progressive still?
Rather than substantively moving towards the electorate, you’ve just pulled a rhetorical trick that allows you to say you’re doing so while sticking with what you wanted to do anyway.
In opposition, this has advantages. Everyone stays united, internal tensions can be resolved by demands for loyalty, and you can be all things to all people, more or less.
In government, this lack of a political argument becomes increasingly exposed. You end up trading tactically, looking for short-term advantages to press home.
Of course, since David Cameron hadn’t made a difficult argument (or indeed any argument) to his party in opposition, the electorate in their wisdom, gave him a chance to do it in government.
Initially, the very fact of coalition meant that a governing project had to be imposed on the party and beyond – ‘together, in the national interest‘ or as a wag might now put it ‘one nation‘.
But in response, instead of becoming the Liberal conservative he could have been, Cameron has increasingly become a Conservative restrained by liberals – something no-one really wants.
In opposition, David Cameron’s conservatism was something in which anyone could read what they wished. In government, it became something in which they could see all they disliked. In both responses we see a certain vacuity.
Can the Prime Minister turn this round? Perhaps.
He’s a smart man, and trying to move beyond our current political debate about recession and onto a harder edged focus on what it actually takes to achieve national renewal may still be within his grasp.
But to do so, he has to break out of the chains his previous prevarications have bound him in. He has to find a way of breaking with the Tory right on some issues, breaking the Liberal Democrats on others, while forging an alliance with each on his own, new terms.
That is hard, and risky and does not seem like the tactical Cameron we have seen over the last five years.
I’d quite like him to do it though. For two reasons. First, I genuinely think two years of liberal conservatism would be better for the country than whatever it is we’ve got now.
Second, it would raise the bar of political debate. Labour would find a long-termist, self-sacrificing liberal conservatism much harder to take down with easy hits.
Speaking of which, there’s a lesson for all oppositions here, though I don’t expect anyone will want to consider it now.
A good political slogan into which anyone can read what they wish is an achievement. It unites the party, keeps problems distant. It is not, however, necessarily a political argument. It may just be a clever way to disguise the lack of one.
How can you tell? Two ways. First, do you discover that everyone can credibly project upon your slogan their own purposes and policies? Second, when your slogan is examined, does it dissolve into statements of aimless vacuity or tactical advantage?
Of course, that’s a governing problem.
For oppositions, those are the good kinds of problems.
*Maybe this is the early influence of Vico’s New Science, which has always fascinated me with the suggestion of the need to place yourself in the worldview of you wish to study if you are to understand the development of society.