A chameleon might blush with envy next to British Prime Minister David Cameron. Eight years after his election as leader of the Conservative Party, and a little more than three years since becoming Prime Minister in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron has reinvented himself yet again. The only surprise: this time he finally sounds like a real Tory.
At the annual Conservative party conference in Manchester last week, Cameron perhaps did not deliver his best rhetorical fireworks so far. But his first speech left everyone in the party happy: his MPs, the Tory grassroots, and even his long-time arch-critic, conservative Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer. Without a hint of irony, Heffer wrote: “How deeply refreshing. At last, David Cameron set out this week some powerful reasons for voting Conservative.”
It is hard to decide what is more amazing: David Cameron espousing some traditional Tory values, or Simon Heffer praising David Cameron. In this instance, the two happened together for a very simple reason: Cameron needs to thwart an attack from the political right.
The British political landscape looked very different when Cameron became party leader in late 2005. The Conservatives had just lost a third consecutive election against Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. After William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, they needed another opposition leader to challenge New Labour.
At the time, Blair looked almost unassailable and economic circumstances – at least superficially – favoured Labour. Unemployment was low, as was government debt, and the economy was in its longest period of uninterrupted growth. It was not the easiest environment for an opposition party to operate in. It’s hard to criticise a government that is seemingly doing all the right things.
When Cameron became party leader, he thus tried to imitate Blair and New Labour wherever he could. The Conservatives’ spending plans? Copied from Labour. Their environmental policies? Like Labour on speed. Their social policies? Even more gay-friendly and ethnically diverse than Labour.
Even the vacuousness of the Conservatives’ presentation was borrowed straight out of the Labour Party’s handbook. “Let optimism beat pessimism. Let sunshine win the day”, Cameron proclaimed at the 2006 party conference – as if he was trying to sell soap instead of politics. It was like the soundtrack to Tony Blair’s first election campaign, “Things can only get better”, just a tad more poetic.
Cameron did his very best to get rid of anything and everything that reminded voters of the old Conservative party. He did not talk about Europe, that awful issue that has divided the Tories since the days of Margaret Thatcher. He did not bang on about taxes and the need to cut them.
He even got rid of the party’s logo. Back in 1987, Thatcher introduced a torch to symbolise liberty, pride, and unity. Cameron replaced it with a stylised tree, painted with big brushstrokes that make any three-year old’s drawing look like a work of art. The only positive thing Tory traditionalists could say about the tree was that, at the very least, it was slightly right-leaning. Apart from that, there was not much semblance with the party once led by Margaret Thatcher.
To his credit, mimicking Labour worked quite well for the David Cameron’s Conservatives for a while. It allowed the party a restart it desperately needed. However, just being the nicer (or better dressed) version of Labour was not enough to win an outright majority in the 2010 general election. Cameron needed to enter an unusual coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, which once again changed his tune.
The Cameron of today, however, is a new Cameron. At the same time, it is the most authentic the Tories have looked for years. At his Manchester conference speech, Cameron finally got rid of the Conservatives’ camouflage of the past years and showed his true colours. Or at least the colours that might win him a second term in office.
So Cameron presented the Tories as the party of business and the hard-working people of Britain. He explained the need to cut welfare dependency, the budget deficit and taxes. He even set out on a great eulogy to Margaret Thatcher, “the greatest peace-time Prime Minister our country has ever had”. He must have forgotten about the Falklands, but there you go.
A few years ago, such a speech would have been unthinkable. It would have appeared like a relic from the Tory past. So what makes it possible today?
The main reason why Cameron is moving towards the right, or rather going back to the Tory roots, is the threat he feels from UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party. What had started off as a splinter group of disgruntled ex-Tories fighting Britain’s membership of the European Union has developed into a serious challenge to the Conservative Party. In next year’s European Parliament elections, UKIP may well embarrass the Tories, according to opinion polls.
So nervous have the Tories become about UKIP that they did not even dare to print an advertisement for an event with UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage in their official party conference programme, even though UKIP had already paid for it and then got a refund for it.
With a Labour Party that has moved to the left under its leader Ed Miliband, and facing the simultaneous attack from the UKIP right, the moment has come for Cameron to move right as well. He may have concluded that he no longer needs to fight for centrist voters, who are unlikely to follow Miliband to the left. But he needs to be afraid that the Conservatives are losing too much ground to UKIP, whom Cameron did not mention at all in his speech.
These circumstances are creating an interesting political contest for the next British election, to be held in 2015. For the first time in many years, it won’t be fought between two mainly centrist parties. Instead, it will be an old-fashioned left versus right battle. A Miliband Labour Party seeking to expand the role of the state, and a Cameron Conservative Party reverting back to its erstwhile pro-market, small state inclinations.
At this stage, it is hard to place any bets on the outcome of the next British election. But the result will matter a great deal more than in previous polls. The next UK election will be about what kind of country Britain wants to be: a country of business or a redistributionist welfare state? Who would have thought David Cameron would ever put this question to the electorate?
Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is the executive director of the New Zealand Initiative.