James Hellyer - a blogger for DD - authors the final (2,000 word) Hustings Report. I formally thank all of the volunteer reporters who have, by their sterling work, contributed to ConservativeHome's campaign for a more transparent and democratic Conservative Party.
The final hustings meeting took place in the less than salubrious environment of Exeter’s Livestock market. I’m not sure who selected an outdoor covered area for a night time meeting in late December, where a large contingent of elderly people were expected to attend, but they won’t be winning any prizes from Age Concern. The cold was widely noted, with even David Cameron joking that he’d lost feeling in his toes by the end of the evening!
This little bit of local colour aside, the rest of the hustings would have been eerily familiar to anyone who had read even one of the previous reports filed on this site. As at the earlier meetings, there seem to have been rather more David Davis supporters handing out leaflets than there were supporters doing likewise for the Cameron campaign – although this may be attributable to the cold finishing off the t-shirt clad Cameroons.
Everything else also seemed present and correct: David Cameron joking that the two Davids has spent so much time together they were thinking of entering a civil partnership; David Davis joking that after all this exposure together “Hello” magazine wanted a joint interview; Cameron boasting that he’d “really had Paxman”; and William Aitken sporting a “Modern Conservatives” t-shirt.
The sense of déjà vu didn’t dissipate as the night wore one. Davis’s speech was the best platform performance I’d seen him give, while Cameron seemed typically fluent. However, every substantive point of both man’s speech has already been amply covered. In summary, Davis made a plea for substance over image, conviction based politics and fighting the government and thus help speed its end. David Cameron offered the familiar platitudes about change, optimism and hope, as well as the need to reflect the country we want to govern. The key difference between the two was Cameron’s belief that we should support government bills we agree with, and Davis’s belief that we should not back bad bills, and that we should instead hasten Blair’s end.
The questions and answer session, however, threw up some points I’d not seen covered before, which threw the two men’s different strengths into stark relief. As was perhaps to be expected from the area, the issues of agriculture and the countryside were raised several times.
In the first such instance, they were asked what they intended to do to support Britain’s agricultural communities. David Davis, answering first, said that the government didn’t understand the countryside because Labour was an urban party. He believed that the tide of regulation needed to be turned so that it actually supported our farmers, for example by making sure things labelled as British produce were actually British produce. His call to “take back” control of our agricultural policy garnered much support from the hall.
When it was his turn, David Cameron demonstrated the other trademark of these hustings by starting his answer with the words “I agree”. He added that the burden of regulation was too much for the farming community, and pledged a moratorium on new legislation. This didn’t seem to go far enough for some in the hall, however, who clearly believed that the presence of too much legislation meant some should be repealed, rather than it just not being added to.
The topical question of the day, of course, concerned the newly released Turner report. Both men replied that they had not read the report, but were aware of its main recommendations. Without committing himself to support of the report, Cameron commented that the need to fund a good basic pension had made the case for raising the retirement age much, much stronger.
Davis’s reply was shamelessly populist. He identified the real cause of the pension crisis: Gordon Brown. This attack on the Chancellor and the pledge to end his raid on pension funds was well received by the audience. When Davis said that if Brown was a company Finance Director he would be gaoled for fraud, he received the loudest cheer of the evening that wasn’t caused by the words “William Hague” or “repeal the hunt ban”.
Two questions on housing policy followed. The Westcountry suffers one of the greatest disparities in Britain between average incomes and house prices. The Davids were therefore asked what they would do to create affordable housing. Cameron spoke of the need to not only encourage housing associations to build more shared ownership properties, and thus allow the young to turn rent payments into mortgage payments, but also to extend the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.
This raised the obvious question of how housing associations would develop new stock to rent and sell if their houses were sold off and the money not allowed to be reinvested in more stock (as was the case with council houses). Davis answered this in his contribution: he said that all proceeds from such sales should be reinvested in new social housing.
The next question concerned inheritance tax, which is being levied on more and more estates as a result of rising house prices. David Cameron replied that he doesn’t like inheritance tax, and that people should be able to pass on their wealth to future generations, but was unwilling to indicate any future course of action he might favour as tax policies cannot be made this far in advance.
David Davis begged to differ. He said that although he would like to see Inheritance Tax abolished, this would be seen as a regressive move. What he instead pledged was to substantially increase the exemption threshold. This was justified on the grounds that at present this would be easy to do because the tax raises relatively low yields. If however we waited for prices to go up far more than they already have, the tax could yield tens of billions thus making any change politically less expedient.
The countryside resurfaced with a question on whether we needed a new generation of nuclear power stations. Davis agreed that this was unavoidable as renewables could not meet the shortfall caused by the decommissioning of our existing generators. He added that we needed nuclear if we were to cut our carbon emissions. The statement that he hates wind farms was exceptionally well received, as they can be seen blighting many stretches of Devon farmland.
David Cameron said he agreed, but then qualified this on the nuclear question by saying that we may need to replace our current stations when they were decommissioned. This didn’t address the problem, which is that the energy crisis we face would happen unless our generating capacity increased. He did however criticise the government’s slavish devotion to wind farms, and pointed out that there was more than one kind of renewable power source.
The questions on constitutional reform offered nothing new. Both men favoured a largely elected Lords. The main difference was in tone: in this case Cameron was the stereotypical opposition MP, saying that the current House was packed with Tony’s cronies and therefore wasn’t much good; in contrast Davis felt that despite that the Prime Minister’s appointments, the Lords remained the guardian of our civil liberties, and had not let us down as the cronies had grown progressively disillusioned with their master.
The only point of note in either man’s response to the West Lothian Question was David Cameron’s explicit statement that the last thing we needed was an English Parliament. He agreed with Davis that we should have English votes for English laws.
Some of the last questions were far more interesting and told us rather more about the candidates. One asked them to name their top four Conservative principles. After some fuss about who went first, David Davis offered liberty under the law, personal responsibility, a belief in family, and the nation state. If you believed in these, he said, there was no doubt that you were a Tory. “Amen!” David Cameron cried, before offering his two principles: these were “power over our own lives” and that “we are all in this together.” My impression was that Davis was more in tune with Conservative principles, while Cameron was more in tune with his campaign catchphrases. Others may disagree.
My favourite was from a thirteen year old boy. He wanted to know what they would do about the opium farmers in Afghanistan. This seemed to wrong foot David Cameron, who told us how misguided Keith Halliwell’s plan to buy the crop and then destroy it was. He then offered his solution, which was to establish the rule of law in Afghanistan.
David Davis was far more specific. The DEA had told him that three years ago, Afghanistan’s drugs output could flood the UK market, while now it could flood the world market. He said that the problem was almost out of hand because this government had mismanaged it so much. He therefore proposed a three step solution: firstly to support the Afghan government in taking on the warlords; secondly, to locate and destroy all opium cops; and thirdly, to provide the opium farmers with new cash crops and the access to our markets required to sell those crops. Davis admitted that this would require further troop commitments and could take up to five years, but it was a clear and credible approach.
This question perhaps best epitomised the two men’s responses. David Cameron would often say what sounded like the right thing, but seemed to lack that little something that could join the dots and make his answer seem more than just a sound bite or a statement of the obvious. For all the slickness in presentation and willingness to roam away from the podium when speaking, he carried an air of superficiality that characterised his answers, which were either cribbed from earlier speeches or so general as to lack any solid point.
David Davis knew what buttons to press to make the hall cheer, but his experience leant a depth to some of his answers that made him look a far more substantial and credible figure then his younger counterpart.
This was shown again in the final question, when the two men were asked whether they lived in the country and would take care of it. Answering first, Cameron told us about the village where he lived and then told a joke about a local farmer who owned only cows, but grew his herd by leading them other farmer’s bulls under cover of darkness.
Davis also told us that he lived in the country. He also said that the grange where he lives once fell under the auspices of an artificial county. This meant it was ignored as services concentrated on the urban areas like Hull. This had taught him that we needed to protect organic local structures like town and county councils, which reflected the real communities we lived in rather than a civil servants line on a map.
The impression was that Cameron was the more amiable man, but that Davis was the one who had thought about how best to organise the nation.
The final remarks brought back the sense of déjà vu.
Davis warned that the first hundred days would define the next leadership, and that he could stand up to the government. He stressed that he would hasten Blair’s end by opposing bad legislation, and would position the Conservatives as the champion of those let down by Labour. Then we would be seen as the people to put in place the solution.
Cameron reiterated his call for change, unity and victory. He said he would address the policy issues people care about and make sure we reflected the country. To prove that he personally reflected those gathered before him, he then complained about how cold it was.
And then it was over. My impression of the evening was that Davis was far stronger on policy issues, and on explaining how policies work, while Cameron was more skilled and easy in stage presentation. In the end the choice appears to come down to one between a man who knows what he wants and explain tell us how he intends to get it, and a man who is more in touch with image led politics, but is far more vague about what he intends to do and how he intends to do it.
The two men appeared to agree on a lot. This means that the choice the undecided voters have to make today is between conviction and experience or youth and presentation, and between whether we batter or back Blair. Last night left me firm in my conviction that Davis was the better man of the two.