Conservative Diary

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On internal debate

At the height of 2007's grammar schools row David Cameron was asked about military intervention against a rogue regime.  He joked that he would support it if the military sorted out ConservativeHome while they were at it!

I am well aware that our role in the grammar schools row was not appreciated by the Conservative leadership but, on the whole and despite the criticisms that ConHome makes of some aspects of Conservative strategy, I can only report a very good relationship.  There is a good flow of information both ways.  No grudges.  No hostility.

I write this because of the debate in the blogosphere today about David Davis' piece in The Times.  It's the latest in a series of edgy interventions by David Cameron's 2005 leadership rival.  I spoke to David Davis this afternoon and he told me that the party needs two things at the next General Election: a majority and a mandate.  He's quite right.  It will be politically murderous for the party to win without giving voters a very clear idea of what needs to be done to get this country back on track.

Iain Dale thinks it is perfectly appropriate for DD to make interventions of the kind that he has.  Iain writes persuasively on the subject:

"What we want is for senior politicians to feel able to try to lead a debate on particular issues. If when Davis writes an article it is now only viewed through the prism of whether he is trying to cause trouble, it says something about the level of political debate in this country."

If Tony Blair and the New Labour machine had been more willing to tolerate internal debate it might have been a better project.  I think Team Cameron understand this and that's why they engage with this website and more generally with the blogosphere and other observers.

There do, nonetheless, need to be rules for internal debate.  I always try to avoid personal attacks, for example, and there can be important questions of timing.  As elections get closer debate must become more disciplined.  I can immediately think of two examples of ConHome suspending discussions when political temperatures were running high (here and here).  Unless some great principle is at stake there must also come a time when a subject can't usefully be pursued anymore.  At some point we will probably reach that moment with ConHome's NHS spending campaign (on which I was particularly strong this morning).

But if the constructive critics need to behave reasonably it's also important that, in return, the party leadership behave generously.  All of the talents who, for different reasons, have left David Cameron's frontbench remain outside of the circle.  I think of Graham Brady, David Davis, Mark Field, Bernard Jenkin and Patrick Mercer, for example.  In the interests of party unity and discipline it would be good to see the man who doesn't hate also be the man who forgives, forgets and restores.

Tim Montgomerie


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