Sunday, February 11, 2007


How Much Does the Mail Hate David Cameron?

I ask ‘How much…?’ rather than ‘Does…?’ because the ‘hate’ is obvious. It’s their mission: to hate and pour bile over anyone not four-square on Planet Mail, and to terrify all those who actually agree with them (I often think Mail-readers must be like ghost train addicts, loving to shriek in pretend horror at illusory threats). This weekend, though, the Mail and Mail On Sunday seem to have mounted a co-ordinated attack on the Conservative Leader. They’ve dug up evidence of his drug-taking (gasp!) and reported in embarrassing detail his failed attempts to persuade Liberal Democrat MPs to defect (shock!). Hat-tips to Jonathan Calder and Peter at Liberal Review.

But what has Mr Cameron done to deserve this double-barrelled attack? He’s a a ‘nice young man’ who’s been well brought-up in a very wealthy Conservative family in the home counties, and is now a Tory Leader who can supply ‘nice young family’ pictures for their supplements. The trouble is, he’s also the Tory Leader who’s been making the most naked appeals to people outside the Mail’s twitchy-curtained definition of ‘proper’ people. He’s a traitor to Mail-ism, and what could be more worthy of their bile? It doesn’t help that Mr Cameron is making less headway than all these ‘changes’ promised, something the Evening Standard (coincidentally, part of guess which newspaper group?) last week reported Edward Leigh fulminating on. The hate-fuelled outpourings of the Mail and Mr Leigh may indeed be thoroughly off-putting to all those outside their enclave, but I think they just can’t help themselves. ‘Nice… Nice… Nice…’ they chant, unconvincingly. ‘HATE!’ Whoops, it just slipped out, but they feel so much better for it.

Naturally, the ‘story’ here that’s grabbed all the attention is the personal one about Mr Cameron – people from proper Daily Mail families, of course, never do drugs (did they not watch The Line of Beauty? Ah, of course; it was all fine in that until anyone told the papers, too). But despite the ‘news’ of Mr Cameron’s drug-fuelled escapades at Eton receiving virtually continuous coverage on News 24 yesterday and still causing a feeding frenzy today, I suspect it will wind up no-one who isn’t already on the Edward Leigh / Daily Mail axis of being wound up by Mr Cameron’s touchy-feeliness anyway – though m’learned friend Mr Calder may be right that the word ‘Eton’ receiving round-the-clock coverage may hurt him, surely not what the Mail had in mind – and, after all his carefully-crafted lines on cocaine during the leadership election, it can come as a surprise to no-one.

I’m not impressed, however, by the Tory line that it doesn’t matter what you do before you enter politics as that can have no bearing on your political career. Aside from all the many politicians who use elements of their life story or life experience to aid their chances – as Mr Cameron does when posing with his family – I don’t recall anyone telling me when I first stood for Parliament that it was the modern equivalent of bathing in the sea at Paphos to restore my virginity. If an MP was suddenly discovered, say, to have committed murder before they became a candidate, would they be able to shrug and make ambiguous answers about how people are allowed to make mistakes but that it has nothing to do with their public life now? I suspect posing as Aphrodite would be a novel and not entirely effective defence with the Director of Public Prosecutions. Bizarrely, the Conservatives’ line means that someone who’s committed a criminal offence, been arrested, found guilty, taken their punishment and been rehabilitated – but with their past criminality a matter of public record – should be in a worse position than someone who successfully covers it up until they become an MP. And in this morning’s TV news bulletins, Mr Cameron has in the same soundbite said that there are private things that should remain private – so if drug use was a matter of private choice for him, why is he in favour of locking up other people for making the same private choice? – and then gone on to mention his family, which is entirely private, except when he uses it in public.

The only tenable reason to say that breaking the law and getting away with it before you become an MP is fine is surely if you believe the law in question is wrong and are vocal in wanting to see it changed, but that corollary seems lost on the Tories who, as ever, wish to have their cake (another dangerous drug, according to some Tory MPs) and eat it. Until they say that young people outside the privileged world of the top Tories should also not be punished for drug-taking, why should we listen to them claiming one rule for themselves and a different rule for others? I’m also curiously unimpressed with the Independent On Sunday for leading with it too (is this the first time a book has been serialised in both the Indy and the Mail? They must each feel dirty); ‘another politician might be a hypocrite if we could pin him down to having a view on anything’ isn’t a story that’ll do much to advance their campaign for legalisation.

Despite all the fun that everyone inevitably has with talking about drugs, the attack story from the Mail with the more slow-burning chance to be damaging is his much-touted campaign for high-level Lib Dem defections. The Tories have been crowing about these for a year as if it’s already happened, and – as Liberal Democrats noticed about our own claims some half-a-dozen years ago – if you have to get your publicity about a defection ‘before it happens’, it isn’t going to. A few minor defectors have been hyped up in the last few months, and it’s suited the news cycle to mention the Lib Dems going to Tories rather than those who’ve gone the other way, but disgruntled councillors, ex-unwinnable-candidates or hangers-on have always switched parties and always will. They’re rarely of much significance, even when some of those who’ve recently left the Conservatives for other parties have lost the Tories control of councils as a result. An MP is quite a different matter, which is why parties are always so eager to parade their scalps. When senior Tory MPs defected to the Liberal Democrats or Labour in the ’90s, large numbers of Labour MPs to the SDP in the ’80s or a Labour MP to the Tories in the ’70s, they were rightly seen as signs of parties in trouble.

Peter Oborne reports the abject failure of the Conservatives’ Treasury spokesperson’s crass attempts to induce Liberal Democrat MPs to defect, apparently by springing an unprompted conversation along the lines of ‘Who could fail to love me?’ ‘Me, for a start,’ which is not perhaps the most tactically brilliant of manouevres:
“Osborne suggested to David Laws, LibDem work and pensions spokesman, that he should consider defecting to the Conservative Party. In return, he would be offered a shadow cabinet job. At this point, Laws politely and thoughtfully explained that he was not a Tory.”
This has to be damaging to George Osborne, both for the reflection on his judgement and for the fact that – the unforgivable sin in the new Tory pitch to win – he failed. While you get the feeling that, whenever he sees Mr Osborne appear on the modern moving television, Mr Oborne feels the need to bark ‘No relation!’ this is also rather bad news for Mr Cameron, reported as having given his personal authority to the approach (evidently, by sending his chief lieutenant). I can’t remember this sort of report appearing as breaking news before, which suggests the Mail really does have it in for them.

Richard suggested to me last night that this could be the first example of a defection that doesn’t take place actively harming the party that was too eager to claim it (at least outside of an episode of Spooks). It makes them look stupid, the approach to Lib Dems is liable to wind up Tory traditionalists, and is damages their claim to be ‘winners’ by providing a conspicuous own goal. Added to that, in the constituencies of Yeovil, Taunton and North Norfolk – all seats that the Tories would be desperate to regain in climbing their mountain to get back into power – Nich Starling rightly points out that the Conservative Leader has now given a fulsome endorsement to the sitting Liberal Democrat MP as preferable to whichever luckless Tory is selected to challenge them.

So why was the Tory Leadership so stupid as to make this move? Of course the benefits to them had David, Jeremy or Norman chosen to defect would be substantial, but wouldn’t it have been more sensible for some more subtle and deniable soundings to have been taken first to see if, you know, there was the remotest patina of interest or dissatisfaction with the party they were already in? After all, it would probably do the Liberal Democrats some good if, say, Ken Clarke and David Milliband were to join, but I suspect that if Vince Cable suddenly turned up in their offices on the spur of the moment and announced, ‘I’ve got a brilliant idea… Why don’t you sit with me!’ the resulting media attention would not be positive for the Lib Dems. The fact that you can’t imagine such a sensible figure making such an utter fool of himself says it all about the two shadow Chancellors.

There are several factors behind this huge misjudgement by Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne (oh, imagine how humiliating it must be if you lived in Tatton, and had exchanged Martin Bell for this shallow creation). The first is that they think, probably based on their life stories before they entered Parliament, that everything will be easy. Mr Cameron became Leader from nowhere, became flavour of the month in the press, and I imagine their overweening self-confidence sees the next general election in the same way. They didn’t bother slowly sounding out their Lib Dem targets because, well, who could possibly resist their charms? And, with their unfounded assumption that they’re coasting to victory, who could possibly not want a ticket to sitting in government with them? Surrounded by ambitious hangers-on eager to drop everything they stand for at the whiff of an opinion poll, they don’t seem to have considered that no-one – outside of a few small-time local politicians in areas where we’ve controlled the council for ages, but there can be precious few of those – has ever joined the Liberal Democrats with the primary aim of advancing their career. Well, not unless they’re exceedingly stupid, and Mr Laws is rather bright.

They look at David Laws in particular, and jump to yet another fallacy. As David “politely and thoughtfully explained” to Mr Osborne, he’s not a Tory. But, surely, he’s a former banker – he looks like ‘one of us,’ they assumed, so he must just have made a mistake and accidentally wandered into the wrong party. Wasn’t it all he needed for that nice Mr Osborne to point this out, and then the scales would drop from his eyes? Actually, no. It’s not the first time that Tories have jumped to this sort of fallacy. Just look at how they howled at David’s predecessor in Yeovil, because decorated army officer Paddy Ashdown should have been a Tory and it was an outrage that he wasn’t. In a mirror image of Labour at the time, they regarded Paddy as a ‘class traitor’. Look at the background of the new Tory elite, with their less confrontational style but much more old-fashioned wealth and privilege than the Tories of the ’80s, and you can see that though nowadays they’re more likely to bribe someone than rage at them, the principle’s the same. Liberals, however, do not come in ready-formed class packages. It’s a shame when some Lib Dems make the same misjudgments about David Laws, but he’s consistently proved that his ideas are Liberal ones. They’re not always the same Liberal ideas I have, but if you can’t see the same philosophical starting point, you haven’t been looking. Either that, or you only looked as far as his suit.

If I had to make a guess about defections in the near future, I’d be very surprised to see any Liberal Democrat MPs moving to the Tories, and almost as surprised if a Labour MP jumped ship. I think the days of predicting Tory defections to Lib Dem are over while Mr Cameron is able to talk up his reassuring fluffy nothingness, and no-one in their right minds would skip to Labour at the moment, surely. With several peers having already crossed from the Tories to UKIP, there’s probably an outside chance of MPs following them… But only an outside chance. The Tories show no sign of becoming any less anti-European in amongst their other fluffy poses, and any MP defecting to UKIP – as opposed to Lords who needn’t face elections – must know they’re likely to be choosing oblivion, particularly as if they’re extreme enough there’s a good chance they’ll get UKIP’s backing anyway. Besides, a lone frothing extremist waving goodbye while shouting about how much the Tories have changed under Mr Cameron would probably do even more to the Conservatives’ electoral chances than they would to those of UKIP. If I were Mr Cameron, I’d think about what I could do to prise away the more unappealing members of my own party as evidence of how safe I’ve become to vote for, rather than show up how meagre my appeal is to those in other parties.

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