Sunday, October 08, 2006

New Toryism

A friend of mine, a card-carrying Republican emailed me the other day in frustration that the Conservatives in England were not being conservative. Neither surprised nor shocked in the response, my rationale was laid out to him. I attempt to do so here now for the rest of you.

Conservatives came to Bournemouth probably looking for two things from their new leader - a clearer sense of the things he stands for, and some idea of what he would do to achieve them.

After a low-key performance at the end of a low-key conference, enlivened only by a minor spat over tax and the antics of Boris Johnson, they may well have left feeling only half satisfied. There was plenty in Mr. Cameron's speech about what he stood for - the NHS, the family, marriage, the environment, security and social responsibility. And some of it was clearly designed to send out some core signals to his party and voters. Notably, that pledge to put the NHS and the family center of his agenda, to reject "pie in the sky" tax cuts that would jeopardize the economy, to go green even if it hurt and, once again stealing Tony Blair's discarded rhetoric, to be tough on the causes of crime.

There were a couple of sentences which sent distinct shudders through some of the delegates who, perhaps, feel their leader is a bit too far ahead of them. Such as his references to the NHS being one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century (it was introduced amid controversy by a Labour government) and supporting marriage between same sex couples, ideas taboo in Tory ideology twenty years ago.

Though the Conservative Party has opened up a six-point lead over Labour following the conference, a new opinion poll by ICM has suggested Mr. Cameron was more popular than Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is expected to replace Tony Blair as Labour leader and prime minister. Researchers asked who would make the better prime minister, with 45% choosing Mr. Cameron as against 34% for Mr. Brown.

And there within is the ultimate rub. Mr. Cameron may wish to take his time building his new, oak tree labeled party by first imprinting his own brand on the nation's consciousness but he really does not need to, since such a brand is not too different than the current occupant of No. 10. Consider it as nothing more than Tory lite. Conservative in name, Labour in substance.

Perhaps more dangerously, there are still those in the Conservative party and its supporters in the media, who came to the conference unconvinced by Mr. Cameron. He may believe he has plenty of time to do the convincing, particularly while the Labour party is looking inward over the leadership issue. And though, he will have to hope his doubters are prepared still to give him that time there really is no need. After this performance his party can be in no doubt that they are now led by, as he said himself, a liberal - not neo - conservative. And the emphasis is very much on the liberal.

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