Andrew Thorpe-Apps urges David Cameron to show conviction
Lady Thatcher was famously ‘not for turning’. But the modern Conservative Party has been criticised for a series of policy U-turns (now numbering almost 40). Whether it is the pasty tax, payday loans, badger culls or GCSE replacements – people are rightly questioning whether David Cameron has a clear sense of policy direction.
Many of Lady Thatcher’s policies were deeply unpopular, yet she secured three consecutive majorities because her leadership and political conviction were never in doubt. Lady Thatcher campaigned on her fundamental values, including the free market, a small state, self-reliance and family. Lord Tebbit said in the Lords last week: ‘As Party Chairman, I must say that my life was made much easier by my understanding of the certainties of [Lady Thatcher’s] beliefs.’
Among the so-called ‘C1’ group (aspiring people on modest incomes), the Conservatives secured 52% of the vote in the 1992 general election. In 2010, the Party only secured 39% of this group, and today’s percentage of C1 voters saying they would vote Conservative is even lower.
If the Conservatives are to win a majority, they must win more votes from the ‘striving’ working classes. The Party will also need to think long-term, in the country’s best interest, and be prepared to take difficult and unpopular decisions. But Mr Cameron’s PR background naturally makes him reticent to sacrifice popularity. Polling has consistently shown him to be more popular than the Conservative ‘brand’ as a whole, yet in polls on leadership strength he is far behind figures like Thatcher and Blair (one poll even placed him behind Gordon Brown).
Whereas Thatcherism is practically synonymous with single mindedness, Cameronism is far less simple to define. David Cameron , who places great emphasis on ‘social responsibility’, has referred to himself as a ‘compassionate conservative’, and once said that his favourite Prime Minister was Benjamin Disraeli. Like Tony Blair before him, Mr Cameron is not driven by ideology. He values pragmatism and believes his job is to reflect, rather than shape, public opinion.
To many, David Cameron is a model One Nation Conservative. He has focused on issues such as work-life balance and international development – subjects which were certainly never on Lady Thatcher’s agenda. He once said that, although he is a fan of Lady Thatcher, ‘I don’t know whether that makes me a Thatcherite.’ It is certainly difficult to reconcile Cameron’s Big Society with Lady Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society’.
Yet, in recent times, Cameron has been ramping up the right-wing rhetoric. This is undoubtedly in response to the ‘UKIP threat’, brought home by that Party’s achievement in pushing the Conservatives into third place at the Eastleigh by-election. Mr Cameron has thus been embracing the Thatcher legacy, whereas previously he sought to distance himself from it. This prompted him to claim at Lady Thatcher’s funeral: ‘We’re all Thatcherites now.’
For the 2006 local elections, Labour devised the ‘Dave the Chameleon’ advertising slogan. The campaign portrayed David Cameron as a populist who will be whatever people want him to be. Although this was a negative campaign and personal attack, it does at least show that, even before Mr Cameron became Prime Minister, there was a sense that he was not a ‘conviction politician’.
Of course, David Cameron does face difficulties. His government inherited an economy wrecked by the disastrous policies of the previous administration; there has simply been no money to play with. Furthermore, governing in coalition necessarily means that the Conservative cannot expect to get their own way on every issue; compromises must be struck. Under such constraints, a form a conciliatory leadership is arguably more likely to get things done. Yet, though this is true of being able to govern effectively, when it comes to winning elections, strong leadership remains the key.
UKIP have pushed David Cameron into associating himself with Thatcherism. Yet this should be seen as a blessing. Before Eastleigh, the Coalition was making U-turn after U-turn. Even the most committed Tory activists were making angry noises about the shambles at Westminster.
No one should expect David Cameron to suddenly morph into a genuine Thatcherite. Indeed, this would be a strategic mistake – pure Thatcherism would simply not be appropriate in 2013. But if the result is more politics of conviction from Downing Street, an embracing of Thatcherism is to be welcomed. It is political conviction, rather than mere likeability, that ultimately wins majorities. With the next general election now only two years away, it is surely time for Mr Cameron to change from consensus to conviction.