It was Walter Mondale, when he was fighting Ronald Reagan for the Presidency, who first asked his opponent: “Where’s the beef?” Fraser Nelson makes the same demand of David Cameron in this morning’s News of the World, declaring the first campaign speech of the year as having “as much beef as a vegan sandwich”. Hmm. I can hardly be outdone in my admiration for Fraser as a brilliant analyst, but this time I think he misses the point.
It was not an occasion for spelling out how Cameron will deal with the UK’s £182b deficit. The Conservatives have long ago indicated how seriously they take that frightening heap of debt, and have shown themselves to be the more realistic about what it will take to reduce it. But to start the year saying he will cut the NHS? Fraser says “Britain wants some beef” but it would choke on such a big slice.
The Conservatives cannot talk about spending cuts in the radical terms favoured by Fraser before we have a completely different political culture, and it would be too much to expect them to change that within the period of an election campaign. They may do it in the five years that follow, if they win. And it’s not just a matter of being open and honest with the electorate, as they are morally bound to be. The solution to £182b of debt is not announcing huge cuts, nor signaling the raising taxes. The deficit cannot possibly be cleared fairly and effectively without new ideas for how we reboot innovation in the public sector.
And this is where Fraser misses the genuine offer of wholesome nourishment that sits in the heart of David Cameron’s speech: the Conservatives do seem to be committed to changing the process of government and of how we develop our public services. Commentators universally respond to talk of ‘process change’ with a roll of the eyes, as if this is nothing but hot air, imported from California. But that response is just lazy. Look at what Cameron actually said yesterday in Witney (I quote it in full, because it’s important):
“We will create incentives and use the best technology to encourage and enable people to come together, solve their problems together, make this society stronger together. As we do this we will redistribute power from the political elite to the man and woman in the street. Within months of a Conservative victory there would start the most radical decentralisation of power this country has seen for generations. Government will enter a new era of transparency. And a strong, unbroken line of democratic accountability will be restored between the people and those that make the decisions that affect their lives. It is a future barely recognisable from the present, but this party is determined to take us there.”
These should not be dismissed as empty words. The point is: why did he say them? There cannot be a single floating voter who will be won over by talk of ‘redistribution of power’ – if anything, it will put them off, diluting the message and confusing the image. So why do Cameron and Osborne continuously return to this theme, for which there is zero electoral advantage? Why do they refuse to drop references to shifting control, which doesn’t bring them an inch closer to Downing Street? The only possible explanation is that they believe in it. That this is their big idea for change. That this is the way they intend to improve how the county is run.
Look at the small but indicative risks they have already taken: against all sound campaigning advice, they accepted live televised debates with Brown and Clegg. Tim Montgomerie criticized them for it on this site, and every conventional tactician would have said the same: the front-runner is crazy to grant such an opportunity to his opponents. But if Cameron is sincere about a new transparency and openness in British politics, then this was the right thing to do.
Look at the announcement a few days ago that a Conservative government would ‘crowd-source’ a new platform for public involvement in law-making, offering a £1million prize for the best mechanism. This isn’t some piece of fluff, it is taken directly from strategies now being employed by some of the most successful companies in the world. Business has been grappling with the changing technological environment by recognizing the end of the era of centralized command-and-control and finding a new type of relationship with customers; but the policy announced by Jeremy Hunt was panned by exactly the same people who normally demand a more business-like and entrepreneurial approach from politicians.
And look again at the part of the Witney speech where Cameron refers to our “broken society”: with this phrase he allies himself not with the woolly agenda of ‘Red Toryism’ but with the pioneering work of the Centre for Social Justice. “Broken society” is not a term beloved of the Guardian, because it clearly communicates that something is wrong and should be fixed. To invoke it is a definite risk for Cameron which does nothing to help him get the top job. But there it is.
My take on the Witney kick-off to the 2010 campaign is that Cameron is preparing to be radical. I don’t know any of this leadership team personally so I can’t judge whether they are natural revolutionaries or nervous conformists, whether they are sincere or opportunist, I have no idea what their ‘true political colours’ really are. But it is perfectly clear that they understand as well as anyone that we are in new terrain and that whoever wins the next general election, politics and government must be done very differently.