Caring conservatism was the raison d'être of the Cameroons once
Speaking about the new compassionate conservatism initiative, The Good Right, jointly launched by Michael Gove and Tim Montgomerie recently, Melanie Phillips in her Times column yesterday gets it absolutely right: there has already been a very high profile attempt to detoxify the Conservative Party – and David Cameron was the result.
Trying to overcome an ‘existential crisis’, fight for ‘social justice’ and detoxify the ‘nasty party’ – this was the raison d’être of the Cameroons once, and they couldn’t even win an overall majority against Gordon Brown.
The plot thickens: who was calling out Cameron for his pre-2010 hugging of hoodies and wooing of the gays? None other than Tim Montgomerie himself.
“Cameron”, wrote Montgomerie in 2011, “should have aimed to turn the Conservatives into a right-wing party with a heart; instead he turned it into a left-wing party with cuts.”
He admitted a slight exaggeration, but Montgomerie’s point was that in focusing on climate change, putting more women in parliament, ensuring civil liberties, and marriage equality for gay people, he became obsessed with Guardian-reader issues. “His obsessions became your obsessions”, he told Guardian readers himself.
But it’s hard to see who else Tim Montgomerie’s own Good Right is aimed at. Just look at the words Montgomerie is now trying to colonise and paint blue: ‘Care’, ‘Equality’, ‘Fairness’, ‘Inclusiveness’, and that old favourite, ‘Progressive’.
This is the same Tim Montgomerie who in 2013 gave another assessment of David Cameron’s leadership strategy:
“A party that has only won 31%, 32%, 33% and 36% of the vote at four successive elections clearly has some deep problems. What was never sensible, however, was to downgrade popular doorstep Tory policies and, instead, try and convert Guardian readers by focusing on climate change and civil liberties.”
Away from the small number of villa Tory poshos and naïve Conservative bleeding hearts, I wonder how much chance a self-confessed ‘caring’ prospective Conservative candidate will have on the doorstep.
Montgomerie insisted that Cameron had turned his party into a left-wing party with cuts; but I wonder whether he still holds that opinion? I mean, things have surely changed since the introduction of what politicos call ‘the Lynton Crosby effect’?
While Steve Hilton’s ‘blue-sky thinking’ put the Conservative party’s head in the clouds, former tobacco lobbyist Crosby was filling it with bad smoke.
His critics have denounced him as having ‘dog-whistle’ politics and aiming his message at the ‘lowest common denominator’. More police, school discipline, controlled immigration, these are the things which characterise Crosby.
Unsurprisingly, elements of the nasty party have crept back. The Bedroom Tax, reducing the amount in benefits immigrantx can claim, and indeed the ‘Go Home’ vans.
Let’s not forget the effect of Osbornomics. Austerity, as TUC analysis has shown, had a negative knock-on effect on productivity, wages, and profits. And George Osborne promises more of the same if re-elected.
Broadly speaking, it’s a shame.
But there is a need for a conservatism that challenges dog-whistle politics. The problem is that mainstream political parties tend not to try and rid us of the politics of fear, but instead seek to capture it.
Personally, I think conservatism on the political right has had its day. The right-wing battleground today is between the libertarian kippers and the Conservative Party neoliberals. The best chance for a small ‘c’ conservative return is probably through ‘Blue Labour’.
I’m sure Cameron believed what he said at the time, but times have changed. Crosby fetched the dog-whistle back. Ukip will nudge the party even further to the right.
Montgomerie said back at the start of the coalition’s term that Cameron’s modernisation project was the wrong sort of Right. But between the Good Right and the Cameroon turn, I can’t seem to tell the difference. Just a lot of liberal wordplay.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.