I know these posts are meant to be about the EU but I hope you will forgive me if, just this once, I go off-piste and discuss the leadership race in the British Conservative Party. Actually, the two questions turn out to be closely related, but I’ll come to that in a moment. First, allow me to make a couple of general observations about the gravity of the Conservative condition.
Many Tories appear to have settled into the comfortable belief that, at the last election, we turned the corner. The gain of 30 extra seats, and an apparent narrowing of the gap with Labour, might seem to justify a certain guarded optimism.
But look more closely at the figures. The single most striking fact about the 2005 election, although one rarely commented on, is that almost every supporter alienated by Labour went over to the Liberal Democrats. Of 1,168,770 votes that Labour lost between 2001 and 2005, 1,167,724 – 99.9 per cent – were picked up by the Lib-Dems. In other words, the Tories’ slight gain in seats was not based on any significant increase in our own vote.
Let me make that same point another way. In 1997, the Conservatives secured 30.7 per cent of the vote. In 2001, 31.7. In 2005, 32.3 per cent. At this rate of increment, it will be the year 2042 before the Tories can hope to form a parliamentary majority.
We can look at the result from any angle. We can prowl around it, trying to see it in a brighter light. But we keep coming back to the rude truth. People do not like the Conservatives. Consider the extraordinary fact that, after eight years in office, with a huge opinion poll lead, and with a parliamentary majority of 160, Labour’s main argument was “Stop the Tories!” – and that it worked.
It is in this context that we should turn to the question of whom we want to lead us. If we were 20 points ahead in the polls, we would doubtless want a “one more heave” candidate: a solid performer who could biff away at Blair and Brown until things came our way. Sadly, we are not ahead. Taken individually, our policies are popular enough: people like tax cuts, school choice, immigration controls and so forth. The problem is they do not believe we would deliver these things. They doubt that the Conservative Party stands for “people like me”. Even when they substantively do agree with us, they distrust our motives.
Of the five candidates originally in the race, only David Cameron seems not to have this problem. I am not sure why this should be. It may have to do with his speaking and media skills, with his age, or simply with the fact that he is not associated with previous Tory ministries. It may be because he gets an easier ride from the BBC. It may not be entirely fair; but we must live in the world as it is. Every measure of opinion, from superficial polls to in-depth studies conducted on the basis of video footage, reveals that people react more warmly to David Cameron than to any other Tory. A survey in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph confirms what all recent polls have shown: voters prefer David Cameron to David Davis by a margin of four-to-one.
That's all very well, you may say, but what would the chap actually do? There’s no point in having him in power unless he would tangibly ameliorate our lives. Absolutely. The truth is that, on policy, there is not all that much to separate the candidates. They both believe in cutting taxes, liberalising the public services and strengthening the family (see their respective websites: www.cameroncampaign.org and www.modernconservatives.com).
One of the slightly distasteful things about this election has been to hear people say “I’m voting for X because I don’t like Y”. Both candidates are attractive, and both deserve sympathetic attention. We should ask just two things: do we like what they are saying and, if so, which of them is likeliest to be in a position to implement his ideas? Both, of course, are so far speaking in general terms rather than making specific commitments. With an election four years away, they would be mad to do otherwise. That's the tricky thing about being leader of the Opposition: there is not much that you can do (as opposed to committing a future Government to doing). There is, though, one important decision that the new leader would face as soon as he took over, and it concerns Europe.
Conservative MEPs have spent the past 13 years in an unhappy mésalliance with the federalist European People’s Party (EPP). To his credit, Michael Howard substantially improved the terms of the deal, but the essential problem has not gone away. As long as we sit with the most Euro-fanatic bloc in Strasbourg, people will not believe that we can be trusted on the EU. Voters will assume that we are saying one thing in Britain and doing another in Brussels – and, God forgive us, they will have a point.
Here is an issue which is immediate and vital. It may not set the world alight, but it will be a token of a new leader’s good faith – an indication, in Opposition, of how he plans to behave in Government.
There is a clear division between the candidates on this question. David Cameron would remove us from the EPP grouping immediately; David Davis would leave the decision to MEPs, a majority of whom favour the status quo. With Cameron, we’ll be out of the EPP by Christmas; with Davis, we’ll still have this albatross dragging us deckwards at the next European election.
That alone ought to answer those who wonder how much substance there is to David Cameron. On the one issue which he would have to decide within days of taking over, the one which he must have been most tempted to fudge, he has been unequivocal and bold. David Cameron’s robustness on the EPP confirms my impressions of a man I have known since he gave me my first job 15 years ago. He is polite; he listens to other points of view; but, when he makes up his mind, he is resolute.
To return to the basic problem: the Conservative Party, in its current predicament, needs a leader who is popular, untainted by the past, charismatic and decisive. In David Cameron, it can have one.