2000s >> 2006 >> no-1217-january-2006

Greasy Pole: Nightmare for Tory Leaders

By their decisive vote the Tory membership have elected, in David Cameron, a leader who seems to be unsure about his own identity. Is the man they have chosen the same David Cameron who, perhaps trying to impress us with his fearlessly rounded personality, recalled his ballet lessons as a child? Or is he the David Cameron who quickly denied having those lessons “after checking with his mother” (although not, apparently, with his spin doctors)? Is he David Cameron speaking, at the start of his campaign, to the Centre for Social Justice (and there’s a grand name for an organisation that hardly anyone has heard of): “The biggest challenge our country faces is not economic decline, but social decline”? Or is he David Cameron three months later, when he told the assembled hacks outside Parliament: “I want us to confront the big challenge that this country faces: making sure we have a strong economy so we can generate the jobs we need . . .”? Is he David Cameron looking forward so much to being party leader: “I am very excited by it. I want to be a voice for change, for optimism and hope”? Or is he David Cameron shortly afterwards, who was asked on the Richard and Judy show if the Tory leadership would not be some kind of poisoned chalice and responded starkly “It’s a nightmare job”?

There are not a few precedents to encourage Cameron in that pessimistic – or rather realistic – assessment. At the Tory conference in 1963 it dawned on Alec Douglas-Home, then known to readers of Burke’s Peerage as the 14th Earl of Home, that he – the government’s affable gentleman amateur – was in serious danger of being uprooted from the mellow courtesies of the House of Lords and dumped, as party leader and prime minister, into the bear garden of the Commons. This was not an attractive proposition. “Oh they must find someone else” he wailed to a lobby correspondent “Even if they can’t agree on Rab (Butler) or Quintin (Hailsham) there must be someone else. But please, please, not me”. But “they” did not “find someone else” because of all the contenders for the leadership he was considered to be the one least likely to be a disaster.

And on that unpromising assumption he was pitched into battle against Harold Wilson, whose craftily cultivated Yorkshire vowels enunciated the claim that the Labour Party stood for a thrusting, technological Britain while the Tories, by the very fact of Douglas Home becoming their leader, had proclaimed their resolve to cling to a discredited past. It did Home no good that he saw himself to be a “moderniser”, charged with uniting his party after the schisms of the Macmillan years. His Party Chairman, along with many of his supporters, came to dread his efforts to compete with Wilson’s grasp of the irrelevances of capitalist economics. On some of his prime ministerial journeys abroad his wife repeatedly had to remind him of their destination for fear that he would step off the plane and use the welcoming microphones to let everyone know how delighted he was to have arrived in some other city.


Home never mastered the techniques of putting across on television the deceptions and evasions so necessary to a politician. He came across as someone whose historically privileged background prevented him having any idea of how the majority of people lived – not that the politicians who do show some such understanding are any more effective. So it was some surprise, that it was by only a small margin that Home lost his one and only election in 1964. He then largely left the job of opposing the Wilson government to his lieutenants and in July 1965, as the tide of criticism rose around him, he resigned. In 1989 a TV interviewer asked him “You never really wanted to be Prime Minister did you?” and Home replied “Terrible intrusion into one’s private life”. As he left Downing Street his party resolved that never again would their leader “emerge” as he had; in future it would be through an election. Not that it has done them much good, or made the job less of a nightmare.

The first person to gain advantage of the Tories taking their first nervous steps into any kind of internal democracy was Edward Heath. He was by then already a controversial figure in the party, partly because of his support for British membership of the European Community and partly because he had pushed through the abolition of Resale Price Maintenance, which had affected a great many small shopkeepers. In a sense unknown to Home he was a “moderniser” whose modest background was in contrast to the earl in his castle among the grouse moors. But Heath resisted any attempt by Tory propagandists to “sell” him in that way, on the grounds that to do so would be to descend to the same depths of cynicism as Wilson.

During his five years as Leader of the Opposition Heath signalled that the Tories had broken with the polices of “Butskellism” – the consensus between Labour and Tory Chancellors about economic policy. In its place the party developed plans to reform – which really meant to curb – the effectiveness of trade unions to resist any attacks on wages or working conditions. At the same time there was to be an end to government helping out “lame ducks” – propping up firms or even industries which were in difficulties. In the short term the argument ran, this may cause problems, for example to workers who lose their jobs; but in the long run the logic of profitability would ensure greater and enduring prosperity for all.


This was also called modernising but this latest plan to solve all the problems of British capitalism did not long survive the Tory victory at the 1970 election, as it was undermined by a series of what came to be called U turns. Finally, Heath’s government was seen as a bunch of rigid blunderers who willingly reduced the country to a three day week rather than question the dogma contributing to the crisis.

By the time he lost the election in February 1974 Heath had few friends in his party and he was infamous for his unprovoked rudeness. He seemed genuinely to fail to understand why anyone could possibly resist the force of his arguments; as Douglas Hurd, who was then his Political Secretary, put it “He believed that people deserved the evidence and by god they were going to get it”. Worse was to come for him as an exasperated party deprived him of the leadership and elected Thatcher in his place, leaving Heath to moulder on the back benches, jeered by his own party when he criticised the Thatcher government and immersed in what looked very much like the comfort of a long-term sulk.

And now it is Cameron’s turn; the question is, in spite of his assurances, has anything really changed? On his way to the leadership Cameron presented himself as an architect of compassionate conservatism – as distinct, presumably, from cruel and pitiless conservatism. Well he would say that, wouldn’t he – just as all the other recent leaders – Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard – have said it, before their party went on to fight an election on policies which were anything but compassionate. Of course cadging for votes does strange things to a politician; how else can we explain Cameron’s recent yearning to give up his £1.2 million house in Notting Hill and move to Neasden. Or his inability to remember, not just whether he took Class A drugs, but whether he joined the Tory Party, when he was at Oxford. (With a memory like that, how on earth did he get a degree?)

When he said the job of Tory leader is a nightmare perhaps he had in mind, not just the experiences of the three men most recently in that job but the fact that he is the fifth Tory leader during the last eight years and that of the ten leaders starting with Churchill the majority have either been ousted or have resigned. A persistent feature of nightmares is the sensation of being out of control – something which all the politicians who profess to be able to shape capitalism to their will, perhaps to make it a compassionate social system – must know about. They may try to conceal the chaos behind a mask of confidence, until reality ensures that they wake up screaming.


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