You don’t have to be a cynic to think that tomorrow’s vote on same sex marriage is part of Cameron’s mission to ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand. But what has been little discussed during this and similar party-splitting debates is whether his electoral gamble – that the party will do better if detoxified – is a sure bet. And why is Cameron so single-mindedly obsessed with his detoxification agenda in the first place?
In 2005 Peter Oborne published a book called ‘The Rise of Political Lying’. Charting the shift towards a political culture based on spin, he wrote: “In recent years, mendacity and deception have become an entrenched feature of the British system. It began with the Major government and was developed by New Labour.” It is no coincidence that Cameron, who started on his political path during the Major government and worked in television for much of the 90s before joining the opposition benches during the Blair years, views politics as a PR exercise rather than an ideological battle.
In this context, detoxification is essential. Back in 2005 when Cameron first started out on Mission Detox, he called himself the Heir to Blair. At the time it seemed quite canny. Blair had just won a third election, and like Labour during the Thatcher years, the Conservatives were wondering whether they’d ever win again.
Moreover, by leading a party that had a friendly image – a good brand – (unlike the nasty party), Blair was able to enact all sorts of policies that Tories find difficult to even mention today. It was New Labour who first introduced Tuition Fees, New Labour who introduced an element of privatisation into the NHS. New Labour sold off thousands of hectares of forests with barely a whisper of protest, yet when Spelman tried a similar move in 2011, the policy was scrapped within 24 hours such was the outcry.
If Cameron thinks that the road to success lies in detoxification, it is not difficult to see why. By creating a brand that the public could warm to, Blair was able to enact unpopular policies with very little fall-out at the ballot box.
But is this PR based analysis of New Labour’s success actually correct? Blair was more than just a clever snake oil salesman – he was also a cunning tactician. By steering his party towards the centre ground he was able to play the Conservatives on their turf – remember “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”? What about “education, education, education”? These were great sound bites, granted, but they were also messages that appealed to the aspirational swing voter. They said to the public: “You can trust us, we share your values”. He was also blessed by gaining power at a time when the economy was taking off again – and holding onto it by creating the illusion of financial success by running up huge unseen debts.
Contrast this with Cameron’s efforts to steer towards the centre ground. His promise to lead the greenest government to date has made him unpopular with left and right alike – the left because they think that more could be done on greening our economy, whilst the right point to rising fuel poverty. Ring fencing the aid budget seems to have simply baffled most of the electorate, who can’t understand why money is being sent abroad whilst benefits are being cut at home. And now we have this bill on gay marriage which has caused perhaps as much as a fifth of the Tory base to quit their support for the party, whilst the rest of the country is far more focused on things like inflation rates. Far from the longed-for headlines on the Tories becoming friends of the gay community, instead the papers will focus on the predicted 180 Conservatives who will not be giving Cameron a helping hand, including a few Cabinet ministers.
Many of his critics accuse him of simply not being a good enough PR man, and there is certainly something to be said for that. The PR machine inside CCHQ is woefully lacking in skill.
Yet underlying the failure could be a simple miscalculation. Perhaps the electorate didn’t vote for Labour because they liked their progressive policies. Indeed, there are a great many people in this country who feel betrayed by Labour’s ‘modernising’ manifesto, neatly encapsulated by the ‘bigotgate’ affair over multiculturalism. Blair has admitted that he regrets the foxhunting ban, which is possibly the issue that bears the closest resemblance to those within Cameron’s detoxing agenda. Rather, it may be that they voted for Labour (and Thatcher’s Conservatives before them) because the economy was going well.
By resolutely pursuing the path of detoxification, Cameron is betting against Clinton’s premise that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. The next election will tell whether he’s placed his chips in the right place.
Donna Edmunds began her political career in the office of Roger Helmer where she learned that the EU is the root of (almost) all our woes. Upon her return to the UK she stood successfully for election to the local District Council as a Conservative. However, following a falling out with the party over Council Tax rises, she recently moved to UKIP. She tweets at @DonnaInSussex