David Cameron is the Tories’ first truly media-savvy leadership candidate. But will the party have sense enough to support him?
Last night Ken Clarke withdrew from the Tory leadership race to lick his wounds. However, I suspect the youngest of the candidates never had too much to worry about, and if the Conservative party ever wants to return to power, they’d better support him … not to the “hilt”, because a hilt is what you get on a dagger, but certainly “all the way”.
Why? Because David Cameron is the first truly media-savvy candidate the party has ever fielded, and Tories should be leaping for joy.
Compared with David Cameron, William Hague and Seb Coe were illiterate cavemen when they started out after the 1997 defeat, in their understanding of the subtleties of communications and the ways of the press. (They’re a lot better at it now – we even won the Olympic bid).
Whatever the psyche, the ambition or the lust for power which drives young men and women into the bowels of the earth beneath political party HQs as researchers straight out of university, Cameron has it in spades, and what he also has on his side is his age. Not just his years, but his generation: he’s a 21st century candidate for his vision of a 21st century Conservative party, which marks him out as exceptional and completely divorced from the triple-bore competition.
The unique apprenticeship he served since 1988, available around the clock to Thatcher, Bell and Saatchi, then Major, Lamont, and Howard as a speechwriter and adviser must have been awesome in its demands on time and family. How that gang kept going is almost a mystery, but for Cameron at least, the late nights have paid off in the end. The tragic ludicrousness of Michael Howard’s failed bid to limit the leadership choice to the parliamentary party is one of the few possible pitfalls Cameron faces.
Will the 300,000 party members, whose average age is more in tune with the House of Lords, have the vision and judgment to appreciate that they are voting for a future prime minister who could be on the political scene until 2030? The hubbub which came and has nearly died away surrounding his refusal to confirm or deny the precise details of what he did, when he did it and who he did it with was actually nothing to do with drugs, but everything to do with the threat he suddenly began posing to the more senior candidates ever since his Blackpool speech.
Since then somebody has been carefully feeding the public the line that as the youngest, most inexperienced of the four, Cameron should not be surprised if this time he doesn’t get a look in. Plenty of years ahead! Don’t run before you can walk etc. But I don’t think even the public is buying that, but they may not know quite why they are right to distrust it. Whatever his background, he’s there today because he’s worked single-mindedly for it for well over 20 years.
It must have been the focus of his life since school, and if school happened to be Eton, which has produced 18 British prime ministers since the post was first established, then that can only have been an encouragement. He then read PPE at Brasenose, Oxford, and came away with a first. Hardly surprising, then, that he was snapped up by the Conservative research department as soon as he became available in 1988.
This institution, whose fortunes tend to fluctuate with its personnel (under Chris Patten in the 1970s it became a hotbed of wetness and liberalism Mrs Thatcher detested) has been around since the 20s, and is the single most powerful department in the party. If you’re in the CRD you help run the Conservative party from the top, from the bridge, from the leader’s office, and that’s precisely what David Cameron has been doing ever since he started, with giants of the ilk of Tim Bell and Maurice Saatchi to back him and advance him.
Ultimately, David Cameron’s baptism of fire over “the question”, even if it resembled the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, should be to his advantage. It gave him the chance to say nothing, and to say it in a dynamic and politically aggressive manner.
For a type of well-mannered, well-spoken Englishman often deemed too polite and too “nice”, this show of teeth may ultimately endear him to the British public, and will make him a far more attractive proposition as the next prime minister than a chippy Caledonian.