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Dave, Danny and have the Tories really changed?

Posted on 21 March 2009 | 8:03am

I’ve pre-recorded an interview for BBC Radio 4’s The Week In Westminster this morning. Back in the days when I was almost a journalist, I used to present the programme myself, so I was in the same Millbank studio, joining Danny Finkelstein for the two of us to be quizzed by Steve Richards about whether the Tories have really changed under Dave. Danny says they have, I say they haven’t, at least not much beyond style and presentation.

There is a lot to be said for Danny. At least he has been on the other side of the fence, having worked for the Tory Party under John Major and William Hague. More importantly, he wrote a good piece on politics and the internet for my edition of The New Statesman. Still more importantly, he said on his Comment Central blog that my interview with Alex Ferguson was so good he read it twice. And most important of all, he does the Fink Tank in the Times, required reading for all football statto saddos.

So even though we disagree about Cameron, it was a pleasant way to spend part of Thursday morning. I know from my Culture Show experience (BBC spin machine starting to crank into action by the way, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/cultureshow/ ) that these programmes can be touchy about what and when you give away in advance. But I don’t suppose it will surprise too many of you to hear Danny was defending Dave, and I was not.

When you get to the heart of what the defence is, it is basically that Cameron has changed ‘the tone’ of the Tory Party. I don’t doubt that tone is important, but under Big Change Tone, aka TB, we had by this stage of his leadership changed an awful lot more than mood music. Constitution, strategy, policy on the economy, tax and spend, unions, public services, defence, constitution … etc.

Danny’s other main point was that Labour under TB learned on the job, and did not have all the skills required on Day 1. There is something in that. But we did by this stage, for all the focus on the five specific pledges, have a pretty clear programme for government. If the Tories were to produce a specifics pledge card now, what would it say beyond the vague tone-changes which in any event vary from day to day, as we have seen in his inconsistent approach to the environment?

Cameron is hugely helped by the bias in the media which takes nothing Labour says at face value, and yet allows the Tories to come up with the most vacuous nonsense without ever putting it under sustained scrutiny, which plays right into his ‘bob, weave, bob, weave’ issue to issue, that’s another day got through ‘strategy.’ (I use the word, though what he does is not strategic, because I can think of no other at this time of a beautiful sunny morning.)

This argument about whether he has done enough to change the Tories, whether he really understands policy, and frankly whether he and his colleagues work hard enough, must surely become more central to the political debate. We are talking about someone who, if the polls don’t change, is the next Prime Minister. Yet despite having been leader of the Opposition for several years, it is hard to work out what kind of PM he would be, and what in policy terms he would do.

What is interesting from recent focus groups is that the word ‘lightweight’ is now popping out unprompted from many more mouths than before. Interestingly, his intervention on the BBC licence fee went down badly, not because people wanted to defend Jonathan Ross’s salary, but because they want to hear the Tories on the economy, and what they would do, as opposed to their constant bleating about what Labour does. So as so often, I think the public are ahead of the political pundits on questions that really matter.

There was a skirmish around this question arising from The New Statesman. Political reporter James Macintyre had a dig at The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson who, when asked by Macintyre to say where Cameron had changed policy, said the areas were ‘too numerous to mention,’ yet failed to back it up. Fraser, in an otherwise splendidly positive assessment of my editing skills, for which Merci, hit back, and now the Fabians have offered a platform for the two of them to debate this as detailed on http://www.labourlist.org/admiral_nelson They should take it.

It might not be quite as elegant and sophisticated as my chat with Danny and Steve, but it is an argument that will become more and more important to the pre-election skirmishing. And the fact that Danny kept saying that Dave’s biggest achievement was the change in tone suggests it is an argument Labour can win. Provided, as I say in the New Statesman (final plug of the day) editorial, they start to put him under sustained pressure.

  • paul robinson

    It sounds as thought you secretly admire Dave. With the centre ground of politics being quite crowded i predict if Cons win next election they will bring “others” on board and Dave could do a lot worse than include yourself in his team

  • Caroline Hett

    I have to admit to being head over heels in love with Daniel Finkelstein. He’s thoughtful, intelligent and extremely likeable.

    The Tories are in opposition. It is the job of the Her Majesty’s loyal opposition to hold the Government to account. That job is far more important than driving their own agenda and flogging their policy for an election that has not yet been called. It is absolutely right that Labour’s policies are more scrutinised by the press – they are in power.

    Do you think the saying: ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ has merit?

  • Mike Fairclough

    I too love the Fink Tank. So much of what passes for punditry is just opinion about other people’s opinions. Yet there is so much statistical information to be had and more use should be made of it. As for Cameron, I agree on that too. He is obviously hoping that the desire for change is enough.

  • Melanie

    Can’t you edit the New Statesman every week? I’ve not read it for a while, and this week I really enjoyed it. I’m not a football fan but the talk with Alex Ferguson was interesting. I enjoyed the education spread and I liked reading a more sensible article for once on civil liberties. I missed the Week In Westminster but I will definitely watch you reviewing In The Loop.

  • Charlie

    @AC “Cameron is hugely helped by the bias in the media which takes nothing Labour says at face value……”

    Alastair. Only you, the spinmeister’s spinmeister, could have the hutzpah to come out with this!

  • Alan Quinn

    They tone did change when Cameron became leader but he’s used the excuse of the recession to slowly bring it back to a mory orthodox Thatcherite agenda.
    He wants to take us out of the Social Chapter (still as yet the thickos at Labour HQ haven’t seized on this…no surprise there), he has now said that education will be cut, only the NHS and defence will be safe. Here on defence, Liam Fox has stated he will look at more “off the shelf” purchases instead of supporting UK industry, yet again not taken up by the dummies at HQ.

    BTW Ally, you signed book, “All in the Mind” went for a fair few quid at a Manchester Labour fund raiser last night which I attended.

  • Alina Palimaru

    Say that again, please! What? The Tories are scared?

    I submitted my article to The New Statesman in the hope of starting a conversation on substance. In part, it was meant for Labour supporters to appreciate what in my view is a strong policy record, and work hard to take the Party into a fourth term, deservedly so! But it was also meant for our colleagues across the political aisle, inviting them to assess the strength of their platform and then engage in a debate with us on substantive policy issues.

    After completing the article, I prepared myself (with facts and policy papers to my side) to respond to any inquiries about my argument, my choice for certain policy instruments, the basis of my predictions and so on. I was also ready to defend my comparison with U.S. policies and how I thought they were relevant to the British case.

    But much to my chagrin, until now the other side has only advanced anti-intellectual sophistry and linguistic filth. Questioning my legitimacy to even open my mouth on these matters, they dismissed me as a “random Master’s student,” “from a different planet,” and a “urinal” among others. Fair enough, this is a free country and everyone is entitled to their opinions. I asked them to move on and join me, instead, in a substantive discussion about the real issues that the people of this country care about so deeply. (True, a “urinal” can be distracting, but they should cover their eyes and noses, and still be able to think, right?) But at this point my call met with their silence.

    All they can do apparently is engage in an expletive orgy and a lot of noise that masks their intellectual silence. Lapsing into grotesque personae, they dismiss a statement about supply and demand by calling you names, and then question factual accounts not on the basis of other facts but one the basis of your identity.

    However, the Tories’ vulgar response to this issue of the New Statesman has had at least one virtue: it shows a scared lot that communicates exclusively out of anger and frustration, with no policy record to rely upon. It also demonstrates that the Tory disaster begins at home. So far, their supporters have managed to distinguish themselves through their difficulty uttering coherent opinions on the most basic issues of the day.

    The forceful set of articles in the magazine has rendered the Tories scrambling to attack with cheap and irrelevant shots. Above all, we can now see that when Labour sympathizers discuss matters seriously, the Tories look as if they’re trying to take a sip out of a fire hydrant.

    I trust that the undecided voters out there will remark this distinction, and make their electoral judgment accordingly.

  • Barbara Lavender

    Since we seem to be entering an unprecidented world economic situation, could it be possible that the Conservatives actually don’t really have the stomach for the fight – would they perhaps sooner lose the next General Election, enjoy criticising the government while they flounder in uncharted waters, and then force a vote of no confidence at some point when they think they can see some hope of an upturn?

    I know politicians must be extremely ambitious and driven to succeed, but there must be a point when it seems prudent to bide your time ….

  • Jane A

    It’s been enlightening to watch Dave on the sidelines during the unfolding of the economic situation. Maybe he thinks pursing his lips, shaking his head and saying (I paraphrase, but not by much)”Ooooh, I wouldn’t have done *that*,” bodes well as a vote winner? Easy cheap vibes, but nothing positive to offer. Computer says no.
    PS. Labour ahead in the polls by 8% on the NHS.
    Patients say yes.

  • Jane A

    Jibes! Not vibes. Got this wrong in previous post.