LONDON — Yesterday a hero, today a goat? We don’t know as yet, for the Conservative Party’s new leader, David Cameron is, at this writing, engaged in his first mouth-to-mouth combat with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Yesterday, the tally of registered Conservative Party member votes gave Cameron a better than two-to-one win over David Davis. Many Tories began to pin their hopes for victory — after eight years in the wilderness — on the 39-year-old Cameron’s candidacy when it caught fire at a party retreat in the tired northern seaside resort of Blackpool, with a no-notes speech filled with upbeat rhetoric.
He has said that people are fed up with confrontational politics (he calls it “Punch and Judy” politics). Thus, it is ironic that his debut as party leader will be at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions (“PMQ”) at which the leader of the opposition does verbal battle with Blair. Blair, a master of rhetorical thrust and parry, loves a fight, according to Cameron who said the other day that the most inaccurate perception of Blair “was his early depiction as ‘Bambi.’ Bambi? Blair will cross the road to pick a fight.”
Like it or not, Cameron’s performance in today’s PMQ will set his image in the minds of large numbers of viewers, thus voters. In any case, he will follow this with a series of speeches, laying out his version of compassionate conservatism. Thus far his speeches and interviews have been long on impressionism and short on specifics. His series of speeches may fill in some of the blanks. He is expected to focus on such things as urban poverty, climate change, and other “quality of life” issues. Or, as one commentator put it, Cameron will present “one-nation, poverty-fighting Conservatism.” He is expected to call for faith-based groups to be brought into “partnership” with government in poverty programs.
Cameron is the fourth man to lead the Conservatives since Blair ousted John Major in 1997. Under the ensuing three leaders the party could do no better than 33 percent in the polls, though a new one shows it moving up to 37 against Labour’s 42 percent, and it did gain some seats in last May’s election.
Tony Blair took control of British politics by reinventing the sclerotic trade union-based Labour Party as New Labour. He moved to the center and has held the ground ever since. Cameron’s task will be to seize that ground, and he intends to do it by moving the Conservative Party away from its reputation as being made up of Euroskeptics, farmers, fox hunters, and Little Englanders.
It’s not all pushing boulders uphill for Cameron. Labour has its problems. Blair has promised to retire before the end of his current term, making way for long-time bridesmaid Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Some Labour backbenchers would like Blair to leave sooner rather than later, worrying that his unpopularity over the Iraq war and other problems will undermine their own reelection. It is no secret that some of them, along with the left end of Labour in general, went with Blair originally because they were ravenous to get their hands on government after 18 years of Tory rule.
Brown has his problems, too, most notably the state of the economy. Back in March he predicted it would grow by 3.5 percent. Instead, it will barely hit half that figure this year. In addition, Brown tried to undermine the well-received national pension reform plan submitted by Lord Turner on November 30. It is said that Brown takes a long time to make up is mind about something, but when he does is unbudgeable. Apparently he decided in advance that he would not like the Turner proposals, and now, in his stubbornness, finds himself on the wrong side of the issue.
Holding the middle ground in British politics is problematic for Brown, as a number of the restless leftists in his party are supporting him in the hope he will revive their Old Time Religion. Cameron is betting that’s not what the voters want and that he’ll be in the center instead.