GENERAL ELECTION: Parliament Dissolves today and the General Election campaign begins officially today with the Dissolution of Parliament – and the publication of the first of the party manifestos.
It is almost exactly five years ago that the Tories experienced yet another election defeat and Michael Howard unexpectedly decided – after a valiant campaign – to step down as leader of the Conservative Party. I remember staggering back to my office at The Spectator and wondering what should happen next. After about ten seconds’ reflection, I picked up the phone.
“Dave,” I said to the future Prime Minister, “you have got to run for this thing.” With his customary politeness David Cameron thanked me and said that a couple of other people had mentioned the same idea. In fact he was so polite I wasn’t quite sure that he was going to strike with the mamba-like swiftness required. I decided to raise the stakes. “You have got to run for this thing, Dave,” I said, “or else I will!”
At which point, as he later told Tory audiences, David Cameron was seized with the full urgency of the situation and the need to save his party and his country. He has done a fantastic job in the last five years, and triumphantly vindicated that small group of us who first supported him in 2005.
To understand quite how effective he has been as leader of the Opposition, you have to remember what the Tory parliamentary party used to be like. It wasn’t a party. It was a rabble. I once got into trouble with the excellent ambassador from Papua New Guinea because I likened the behaviour of the feuding Tory factions to “Papua New Guinea-style orgies of cannibalism and king-killing.” It turned out that the good lady was offended not by the stuff about cannibalism – which has, of course, been very largely stamped out in the last 40 years – but by the comparisons between the modern emerging nation of Papua and the antics of the Tories.
In less than a month’s time the Tory parliamentary party will not only be younger, more dynamic, more female and more ethnically diverse than ever before. It will also be more united than at any time in modern memory. Never mind the Major years, which were marked by endless strife between Europhiles and Eurosceptics, and which, if I were not so nervous of offending the people of Rwanda, I might compare to the ancient hatreds between Hutu and Tutsi.
I think you could argue that Dave has a tighter grip of his party than Thatcher herself did. We remember her now as a kind of Boadicea, a terrifying imperatrix who could reduce the suits around her to gibbering submission with one small exasperated sigh and a toss of her marmalade hair. It wasn’t like that at all. She was always embattled, always plotted against, always in danger of another rebellion by the “Wets”.
What a contrast to the party today. Of course, the process has been gradual, and successive Tory leaders, Hague, IDS, Howard, have all played a part. But in the end it has been Cameron, and George Osborne, who have given the whole thing the organisation, the impetus and the discipline. It takes a great deal of nerve to be a successful leader of the Opposition – the worst job in British politics – for five years (Tony Blair had served for nothing like as long before the 1997 election). Cameron went eyeball to eyeball with Gordon Brown during the great phoney election campaign of 2007; and Brown blinked, missing what was in retrospect his last chance to secure a proper mandate.
Cameron showed a mixture of good manners and ruthlessness in his handling of the expenses scandal, calmly truncating the careers of those who had transgressed, and yet without incurring anything like the mutinous backlash you might have expected. And how did he gain such pre-eminence over his party? Because he has so managed to reconnect his party to the electorate that the Tories have consistently enjoyed poll leads that would have been unthinkable to all of his predecessors except Thatcher in her prime.
It is true that the lead has slightly narrowed since Christmas, as you would expect in the run-up to an election, and in the midst of deep economic uncertainty. Gordon is playing the hold-on-to-nurse card for all it is worth. But it is the only card in his hand. Do we really want Gordon back in No 10, backed by no one much except (half-heartedly) Lord Mandelson and the pugnacious Ed Balls? Do we want some hopeless, dithering coalition between Gordon and Nick Clegg, spatchcocked and bubblegummed together by secret deals, in which the country’s future depends on discovering what exactly the Lib Dem position really is on the matter in hand?
We don’t; and over the past few days, as the campaign has begun, we have seen the Tory lead start to grow again, as people tune in to the fundamental Tory message of optimism and energy and wealth-creation implicit in the cut in National Insurance tax, and they start to understand the hugely ambitious programme to tackle the divisions in society by getting young people of all backgrounds to take part in national citizen service.
I say all this not because I want to win some kind of Bruce Anderson prize for fawning at the Tory throne. I say it because it happens to be true. The other day a paper had a headline saying “The Cameron question”, above an article about voter hesitations. Whatever the Cameron question may be, the answer should be an emphatic yes. He has produced a wholly benign transformation in the Tory party, and should be given the chance to do the same for the country.
You can read the full article and more views and news in The Daily Telegraph here