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Sunday 11 December 2005

Tory Party new boy gets off to a smooth start

AS UK Conservative leaders know all too well, their party is a cruel mistress. Indeed so viciously has it behaved in recent years that I've begun to refer to it as Turandot.

For those of you who don't do opera, suitors for Puccini's Princess Turandot had to answer three riddles. If they failed, their heads ended up on spikes.

In the case of the Tories, eager princes took the leadership and sought to answer the riddle: "How do we win the next election?" Having got the wrong answer, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard (who became leaders at 36, 47 and 62 and spiked at 40, 49 and 64 respectively) paid the price.

The horrible fate of these foolhardy lovers did not deter 39-year-old David Cameron, who saw himself in the role of the ultimately triumphant Prince Calaf and dared all to win the heart of his cold, ruthless love-object.

He's made a decent start, but can he answer the riddle and avoid the spike?

No one knows, of course, not least because so few are clear what Cameron thinks. Political pundits disagree on whether he is principled, pragmatic, an ideologue, policy-free or even right- or left-wing. "Soft centre-left," says self-styled fuddy-duddy Simon Heffer in the Telegraph, who warns that in embracing the politics of consensus, Cameron (like Ted Heath three decades ago) is doomed.

"What exactly is moderate about David Cameron?" asks the Guardian's Nick Clark, worriedly listing his interest in a flat-rate tax, his Thatcherite economic agenda of tax cuts and deregulation, the Euroscepticism that has him taking Conservative MEPs out of the pro-European unity European People's Party group and the neo-conservative pro-US instincts of his inner circle.

I never thought he could be unprincipled, since you have to judge a man by those who choose to keep his company. One of his closest allies is the brilliant Times columnist and new MP, Michael Gove.

The adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger, Gove is a moralist first and foremost, co-founder of Policy Exchange, a think-tank that promotes "ideas and policies based on strong communities, personal freedom, limited government, national self-confidence and an enterprise culture" and, incidentally, a ferocious critic of the British and Irish governments' spinelessness towards Northern Ireland terrorists.

Since his election last week, Cameron is working on dispelling his 'policy-lite' image.

As it is a New Labour characteristic to make snap policy decisions that fall foul of the Law of Unintended Consequences, it is sensible that Cameron has set up fundamental policy reviews into social justice, the economy, improving the quality of life, reform of public services, protecting security and tackling global poverty. He has also harnessed Ken Clarke to head a Democracy Task Force which will look at how to reverse the damage Labour has done to the independence of the civil service and the role of parliament in law-making.

Cameron also passed the big test of prime minister's questions. By using consensual language, he began the process of upsetting the Labour left by hailing Blair reforms of which the Tories approve. He also demonstrated a necessary brutal streak, by ticking off the highly unpopular Labour chief whip for uncouth heckling and by saying woundingly of a tired-looking Blair: "He was the future once."

The anxious Cameroons will have been thrilled that the all-important Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, described his first appearance at prime minister's questions as "a sparkling first outing" - even though he predicted that Blair will soon get the measure of him.

Cameron is concentrating his own energies on trying to make the Conservative Party attractive to a new generation: hope, opportunity and compassion are his themes.

"I like this stuff about there being a 'we as well as a me' in politics," wrote Boris Johnson. "I like his constant repetition of 'we're all in this together'; indeed, I am vain enough to have a feeling that he nicked it from me. It is a simple idea, but it bears explication.

"It means that Toryism is not about one section of society grinding the faces of another section of society, with Tory politicians getting off on the sheer ideological purity and savagery of it all."

He may blow it, like his predecessors, but so far Cameron has caught the public imagination. While a Labour newspaper like the Daily Mirror has made much of his being a "Tory toff" who is alleged to have taken drugs in his youth and call him Lord Snooty, Lord Charlie or Coke, the general populace seems to be bored with the class war and relaxed about youthful indiscretions. Multimillionaires are queuing up to pour money into the party.

For now, Turandot is looking pretty benign. But Cameron cannot answer the riddle for some years. The spikes will be kept oiled.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards