Britain will soon be ready for Cameron

The new Tory leader David Cameron said during his campaign: “There is such a thing as society. It’s just not the same thing as the state.” His repudiation of Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement was intended to mark the end of Thatcherism. And it certainly took guts for a Conservative leadership contender to contradict someone still worshipped by most of their electorate; guts, and realism, as it underlined Cameron’s determination to tell them the harsh truth, that the party is doomed unless it stops harking back to a Britain long gone.

Having won the “crown”, these qualities will be severely tested in the coming months among a highly sceptical public. But I am convinced that the combination of Cameron’s qualities, alongside growing disillusionment with New Labour and the point we have reached in the political and economic cycles all conspire in the new Conservative leader’s favour, albeit with a long list of conditional “musts”.

Just as Blair ignored blandishments of Old Labour stalwarts yearning for a return of state control in the 1990s, Cameron must not allow himself to be pushed off course by anguished cries from those to the right of the party still fantasising about past victories. He and his team show every sign of understanding this.

He needs to convince the electorate that, while adapting many of Blair’s tactics, he is not Tony Blair Mark II. Yes, the two party leaders went to England and Scotland’s premier public schools, Eton and Fettes, but it is ludicrous to imply that they think or act alike. Nothing could be further from the truth and Cameron needs to demonstrate this difference early on if he is to avoid being tainted by the increasingly discredited “Blair” brand.

Likewise, Cameron weathered demands during his campaign to make detailed policy commitments. He will find this  difficult now he is leader. Here he is imitating aspects of New Labour’s ascension, for one of his first acts was to inject some intellectual rigour into the party’s research department to work on new policies. Even more audaciously, he is cuddling up to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the think tank set up by Labour supporter Lord Hollick back in the 1980s and since then regarded as Blair’s own ideas factory.

During internal deliberations in recent years, party activists pleaded with shadow ministers to paint a picture of what life in Britain would be like under a Conservative government. Yet on the doorsteps of Slough during the general election campaign, people seemed aware of what the party was against, but not what it was for.

Cameron knows that disillusionment with this government won’t be enough and that voters need positive reasons to vote Conservative again.

During his campaign he made a start at painting that picture, marking out a political territory that is not Thatcherism or Blairism, and giving glimpses of his approach to running of public services.

“People in Britain today don’t just want to be better off financially, with decent, well-paid jobs,” he said at campaign hustings in Devon. “They don’t just want public services that work. They want Britain to be a place which lifts the spirits.” 

One indication of his approach to tackling social breakdown to achieve this ambition has been his assertion that it cannot be left to government agencies. “Today, the terms on which the social sector has to compete for the right to offer services are just not fair,” he told the Centre for Social Justice in July. “The requirements placed on voluntary organisations are tougher than those for government agencies. That’s wrong and we must change it.”

Hopefully, those public service professionals growing tired of the current administration will at least give Cameron a hearing. The whole political landscape has shifted and people may well find they are pleasantly surprised by what they hear.

Sheila Gunn is a political consultant and journalist. She is also a Conservative councillor for Camden.

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