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October 11, 2006

The commentariat are quite wrong: Cameron is no Blair - unlike Blair, Cameron is not running against his own party and the Tories are beginning to show that they can run things, argues Richard D. North

Posted by Richard D. North

Richard D. North - the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A Story of Inspired Government, 1997-2007 (Social Affairs Unit, 2007) - attended his first ever conference of any political party when he was invited to debate global poverty with George Monbiot at the 2006 Conservative party conference. Here Richard D. North reflects upon his impressions of David Cameron and the Conservatives. The views expressed in this piece are those of Richard D. North, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

It may be because I'm a conference virgin, but I don't recognise the bash I was at and the one described by the majority of the commentariat. They saw an absence of policy and a lack of enthusiasm amongst the faithful. I saw exactly the confident pragmatisim that is three-quarters of Toryism.

Shipped in as part of the conference's new interactivity, I took part in a debate on global poverty with the Guardian's greenest guru, George Monbiot, on the last morning - the day of Dave's speech. The attentiveness and agreement which met many of George's remarks show that the audience (presumably of committed party members) are really rather Dave-ish. Like their leader, they have found Steve Hilton's concern for corporate social responsibility an attractive pitch. Likewise, they are up for worrying about climate change. Later, they lauded the new pressure politics symbolised by Jamie Oliver, who (with Boris) seemed their natural national hero.

So here is Lesson One. Cameron was right to let his faithful speak freely: it was tangible evidence that he can turn his party his way.

Here's Lesson Two. It is quite wrong to say that Cameron is a new Blair. In the mid 1990s Blair clobbered his party hard and they bought his tactic but never his ideals or message. More: the country was silly enough to fall for Blair's pseudo-revolutionary stuff about the Tory bad old days and a bright new future. Cameron is right to have a soft-spoken dialogue with his party and country about an evolution of the legacies of Thatcher and Blair, the best of which he has no thought to overturn. A tricky act, but surely a sound one. Blair triumphed in a fog of national self-delusion: Cameron is building on a mood of something like national satisfaction.

Here's Lesson Three. The Cameron team understand and have highlighted the merit of the country being governed in recognisable ways. We will have Cabinet government again, said Dave in his quiet, effective speech. He said:

I want to be Prime Minister of the country, not President.
I have argued that Mr Blair was much stronger than your average president: he conceived himself as a transformative individual - something like a Messiah - and it will be Cameron's greatest triumph if he can return us to sounder political management.

Lesson Four is a very boring one which continues this theme and will be hugely important to the Tories' getting elected and running the country well. Eschewing large-scale reform of the public services, Stephen Dorrell and Baroness Perry - in their review of this difficult area - seem to have understood that the old Tory war against the professionals in the public sector's delivery of public services is doubly mad. First, there are millions of them and they vote. Second, whether the state or Tesco end up employing them, it'll be these professions that educate and treat us.

Listening to Dorrell and Perry (both hugely experienced in real-world management) in their untrendy fringe meetings was fascinating. I'd only recommend one change to their pitch about trusting the professionals more. It's a tough one. It's a question of saying that managers are key professionals. Nurses, doctors and teachers are not only inclined to be doctrinaire, they are inclined to want to spend lots of money on whoever happens to be in their care. Someone has to be fair and intelligent in confronting that open-handedness. Managing public services is in large measure a matter of rationing, and accountability is in large measure a matter of defending a rationing decision. Somewhere between a post code lottery and Stalinist dictat, there need to be capable and charismatic managers able to act and attended-to when they give an account of themselves.

I imagine that our public services would be better off if they were owned by private firms. But that's not political reality, and banging on about it now is political suicide.

Instead, it's entirely possible that the Tories could develop a strategy in which the public was reminded that they are the party of sound and open management of the public domain as much as they are the party of the private one.

The beginnings of that were clearly on show at Bournemouth and like much else seem to show a rather substantial political and policy evolution which is distinctly Conservative.

Richard D. North is the author of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and its update Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: A Story of Inspired Government, 1997-2007 (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

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