Argus title : Blair’s heir won’t pull punches
We human beings seem doomed to repetition. In nightmares we flee the thing we dread only to find ourselves facing it yet again.
It’s a theme developed in the film “Groundhog Day” in which a television anchorman relives – and refashions – the same day over and over again.
I’ve been eagerly anticipating the end of Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party – along with what I suspect is a majority of my fellow citizens. However, just as Blair is about to depart, the Conservatives have appointed his apparent mirror image as their leader.
I was looking forward to the prospect of Ken Clarke slugging out it with Blair (and then Brown) over the dispatch box. He was the only candidate prepared to advocate withdrawal from Iraq. Had he become Conservative leader we could have looked forward to close questioning of Blair about the impact of the war on the global and domestic economy. It is the elephant in the room that no one will mention.
All we can now expect is months of spiteful swordplay between Blair and David Cameron. For all Cameron’s talk of getting away from “Punch and Judy politics”, he will be vicious.
Blair winced when, during his first Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron waggishly offered to help Blair get his educational reforms past his own Labour back benchers, later mocking “You were once the future”. Revealing an eye for a soft target, Cameron last week ridiculed the Labour Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong for shouting “like a child”. This week, he targeted the beleaguered Charles Kennedy, quipping about the Lib Democrats’ “decapitation policy”.
His ‘spin’ machine rivalled anything Labour could have produced, and, of recent weeks he has been rewarded by a media love affair. He’s photogenic and highly skilled and has worked journalists like a trooper, carefully constructing an image of himself as a man of the people, essentially middle class, who cycles, shops at ASDA and looks after his disabled son. The newspapers have swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
Labour politicians have looked on in dismay as Cameron has used many of the tactics that were deployed with such devastating effect by New Labour. Aided by colossal errors from David Davis, who seemed to incapable of opening his mouth without offending women – and was holed below the waterline by his long-suffering wife’s comments about him in an interview he’d authorised – Cameron walked the final leadership ballot.
Cameron’s privileged class background may have had to be repackaged, but this remains a class-ridden and stubbornly deferential society. Cameron’s class and his Eton education have been subtly deployed to achieve a cachet unavailable to his leadership rival David Davis, who with his broken nose and puffy eyes looks like a wide boy offering the public dodgy watches.
His Eton education could have posed a problem for Cameron, but he managed to represent it as a school to which hard working middle class people send their children, rather than as the centuries old institution which has prepared generations of this country’s aristocracy for leadership. It has produced 19 British prime ministers.
Cameron, as well as being the son of a well to do old Etonian stockbroker, is also, on his mother’s side, a descendant of King William 4th. He is married to the daughter of another old Etonian whose estate has been in the family since 1590. Her ancestors include a Speaker of the House of Commons during the reign of Henry VIII and Nell Gwyn. She is also a stepdaughter to Lord Astor, with whom, until recently, Cameron rode to hounds.
So, this is no ‘ordinary’ couple. And he is no man of the people. And yet, by and large, the media have accepted the spin and assisted the victory.
He was not always so popular with journalists. Cameron spent seven years with ITV television company Carlton, as head of corporate communications. Jeff Randall, ex BBC business editor writing in The Daily Telegraph where he is a senior executive, had dealings with him at that time. He said: “In my experience, Cameron never gave a straight answer when dissemblance was a plausible alternative, which probably makes him perfectly suited for the role he now seeks: the next Tony Blair.” He added that he would not trust Cameron “with my daughter’s pocket money”. Sun business editor Ian King, recalling the same era, was even more cutting, describing Cameron as a “poisonous, slippery individual”. What is clear is that, like Blair, Cameron is a superb communicator and not averse to dissimulation.
George Bush is one of the most right wing, undemocratic presidents the USA has known. During the election campaign in 2000 it became apparent that his neo-conservative views would not play well with the electorate – so he repackaged his politics as ‘compassionate conservatism’. This aggressive and bigoted man managed to persuade the public that he wanted to ‘change the tone’ in Washington and be a “uniter not a divider”. He didn’t say he rejected ‘Punch and Judy politics’ but it was the same idea.
The journalist Sidney Blumenthal has shown how, during the election campaign, Bush appeared to reject his colleagues “right wing economic hard line, instead emphasising issues associated with the democrats such as education.” Of course, Bush reverted to type as soon as he was elected.
Clinton’s Democrat administration had run the US economy very successfully. Al Gore, the presidential candidate in 2000 had been Vice President and therefore could have expected to have benefited from economic successes. As a consequence, Bush’s camp largely ignored economic issues to focus upon a clash of personalities. Time and again the highly competent, but rather stiff Al Gore was presented by the Republicans as unpleasant and “hopelessly dour, dull and dutiful”.
It is likely that Cameron plans a similar strategy against Blair’s probable successor, Gordon Brown.
Freedland wrote: “Again and again, Cameron may talk left, but he remains a man of the right. The work-life balance is a favoured theme, constantly advertising his own hands-on involvement in family duties, yet in 2002 he voted against a battery of measures that would have extended maternity leave to 26 weeks, raised maternity pay to and introduced 2 weeks paid leave for fathers as well as leave for adoptive parents. Most strikingly, given his own circumstances, he voted against giving parents of young or disabled children the right to request flexible working.”
Cameron has surrounded himself by neo conservative advisers, such as George Osborne, his close friend, campaign manager and shadow chancellor and Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey. Gove and Vaizey recently founded the Henry Jackson Society, named after the late US senator, anti-communist and neo conservative hero.
Blairite M.P. David Miliband is being groomed as a possible successor to Blair by those Labour M.P.s who wish to scupper Gordon Brown by ‘skipping a generation’. Miliband argues that Cameron should not be seen as the “heir to Blair”. He says “..modern conservatives look to Texas not Islington for inspiration. If anyone wants to see what a Conservative government would bring to Britain, they should look to the US”.
This is of course correct – though breathtakingly hypocritical, for it ignores the fact that Blair also “looks to Texas” for inspiration. Cameron is the heir to Blair, not just because his focus is upon spin rather than substance, but because both he and Blair share a commitment to a right wing politics and a pro-American interventionist foreign policy. Cameron fervently supports the Iraq War.
Blair took the country further in making it a satellite to the USA than any president could ever have hoped and the US will want a new Prime Minister willing to continue this process. No doubt, Washington’s dream ticket would be Cameron with Miliband as reserve. But under Blairite control Labour has strayed so far into Tory territory that the US is unlikely to mind too much which party delivers the goods for them.
Labour members and British voters may stubbornly continue to want Gordon Brown as leader and eventual Prime Minister. However, a Brown leadership, though hardly left-wing, would be unlikely to meet Washington’s foreign policy needs as slavishly as Blair has done and Cameron would do.
So, we can look forward to dirty tricks in the couple of years ahead. It will make ‘Punch and Judy’ politics look positively wholesome.