I am a little too interested in this latest bout of Tory infighting. It’s taken the heat of the divisions in the Labour Party, for which Gordon Brown must be greatful. I can’t help feeling that if there had been a leadership contest in the Labour Party, Cameron’s posturing over grammar schools would have been largely ignored by the British press.
Former Liberal leader Charles Kennedy was fond of stating that there was no longer left and right, economic issues having been settled what remained was a battle over the relationship between citizens and the state. Try telling this to the Conservative Party: the leadership will agree with this analysis but many members might suspect that they face a battle with the left in their own party.
If grammar schools are an issue, it is only to those fortunate enough to help their children gain admission – in those areas that grammar schools remain. To most parents and pupils, the row might appear ridiculous and irrelevant. Actually, to most people this is how the row seems.
I wonder if the battle that has broken out over this sacred Tory cow is merely the eruption of a volcano of displeasure at the direction of Cameron’s Conservatives. To grassroots activists, it must seem as if their party has been hijacked. The thirst for power might have made some of the changes more palatable, but the extent to which Cameron is breaking with the past has shocked even members of his own cabinet.
Peace breaks out
Cameron’s embarrassing U-turn came after he denounced as “delusional” those in the party who backed the establishment of more grammar schools. His predecessor and mentor, Michael Howard is said to be furious at the change of policy and was to pen an essay in favour of grammar schools for a magazine, but reconsidered. It is worth noting that whereas Howard went to a grammar school, Cameron was privately educated and is something of a toff.
Scandals have thus far been confined to drug allegations and perceived racism. Academic selection and grammars are key Tory policies and Cameron has not faced serious challenge from within party, despite his actions since becoming leader.
This has been the first real policy debate in New Conservatives. Thus far there has been no open warfare over taxation, immigration, the EU, or the leadership’s A-list of preferred candidates, though there has been disquiet amongst grassroots Tories.
Death of the nasties
The Tories before Cameron were on a road to nowhere. Michael Howard had led the party into its third consecutive election defeat. Though not a spent force, it appeared as if the Tories were in decline.
Cameron’s promise was to rejuvenate the Conservatives, shedding the Nasty Party image and acquiring a positive orientation: rather than getting bogged down in debates about immigration quotas or tax cuts, he carried out a series of media stunts. These included flashing his green credentials at every opportunity, hugging hoodies, and joining the movement against cuts in NHS services.
Having done so much to help Cameron revive the Tories, the media was rewarded with shock announcements and photo opportunities. Questions of policy did not arise, the orientation was enough. Cameron even went as far as alienating the only public sector workers who can be guaranteed to vote Tory, the police, in his quest to confound expectations.
The future’s blue-green – or Brown
Will there be success or failure for Cameron’s New Tories? They’ve no presence in the northern cities. On the other hand, Labour might suffer defeats to Tories in South.
There is a strong possibility of hung parliament at Westminster in 2009. In which case, Brown might even attempt to incorporate the more liberal Tories in his cabinet – in the same way Sarkozy chose right-wing Socialists for his government in France.
It hardly matters who will win. The policies of New Labour and the New Tories seem remarkably close, and the way things are going there may not be a “bourgeois workers’ party”, as Labour is affectionately known by socialists. If there are more strikes in the public sector, calls to disaffiliate from Labour will grow.
The only excitement that the run up to the next general election affords is predicting when the Tories will revert to type, and Cameron dumps the environment and goes all Enoch Powell.