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Rather than seek to move the voters rightwards, Cameron and Osborne are moving themselves leftwards, into the centre of British politics

CameronCleggInDowningSt David Cameron and George Osborne are power politicians.  I'm not suggesting that they've no convictions or beliefs.  The first is essentially a modern Tory with shire roots.  The second is an urban liberal, both economically and socially.  But to them, ideas are a doorman to office: in other words, they've a function - to hold open the gateway to power.  If they've no utility, they're of little interest.  Or worse still, they're not fulfilling their purpose: they're swinging the gate shut - and barring it - rather than throwing it open.

As Ministerial special advisers, both men had front-row seats for the tragi-comedy that was the Major Government.  Cameron was Norman Lamont's Special Adviser during the ERM convulsion. Osborne was Douglas Hogg's during the BSE crisis.  Cameron fought a seat he might have won in 1997, and lost. Osborne became William Hague's Political Secretary, and saw the latter trounced at the polls in 2001.  By the time of the 2005 election, Cameron was writing the Conservative Manifesto and Osborne was Shadow Chief Secretary.  The Tories failed again.

Both were therefore, in a sense, three time losers.  Worse, they were on easy terms - at least during the late 1990s - with members of the New Labour circle. They must have felt a sense of embarrassment at best, of humiliation at worst: disturbing, discomforting emotions for two men of great talent, many gifts and immense self-confidence.  Before the 2005 election, I was never part of the fledgling Cameron leadership campaign: it was no secret that I'd vote for David Davis in any contest, as I'd done in 2001.  But I played a very minor role in occasional discussions about the future before the poll - one, if I remember rightly, at Cameron's home.

Their frustration was evident.  In 1997, the Party had won 31 per cent of the vote.  Four long years later, it had only improved on that total by a derisory one per cent.  It was on the verge of going down to defeat yet again.  In the event, it only added another one per cent to its total.  Both men, Steve Hilton, David Willetts, Greg Barker, Danny Finkelstein - all those present - agreed that the Party was trapped in an electoral cul-de-sac with a third of the vote - its core. The story of the Cameron leadership is largely the tale of an attempt to escape, using modernisation as a map.

Tim presented yesterday here an analysis of the venture's successes and failures.  Team Cameron put four per cent on the Conservative vote - one point more than their three predecessors combined.  Last week, fewer than two in five voters were persuaded to vote Tory.  Yet this morning, Prime Minister Cameron commands a coalition which, broken down to its constituent parts, gained roughly 60 per cent of the vote - three out of every five voters.  Tony Blair never came close to approaching such a total.  Nor did Margaret Thatcher.  Labour, in the meanwhile, won two per cent less than John Major last Thursday.  True, they won a respectable number of seats on a paltry share of the vote.  But a reduction in the size of the Commons would make their task next time more difficult.

Cameron and Osborne will try to make the most of this opportunity - and of others.  Maybe their teaming-up with Clegg is powered by genuine if unexpected goodwill: a meeting of minds between socially liberal Conservatives and economically liberal Liberals.  Or perhaps it's driven by cold calculation, with each party seeking to devour the other like a python consuming a rabbit.  Who can say - including, very possibly, the participants themselves.

But one conclusion's inescapable.  This coalition may not last five weeks, let alone five years. Conservative MPs may revolt rather than wait to be culled under AV.  Liberal Democrat activists may rise up rather than part-shoulder the blame for "cuts".  None the less, Cameron and Osborne, having worked to put this deal together, will strive to keep it together - before breakfast, lunch and dinner, as Michael Heseltine once put it.  Mention of the former Deputy Prime Minister is apposite.  For better or worse, Cameron and Osborne are breaking free of the Thatcher legacy.  Rather than seek to move the voters rightwards, they're moving themselves leftwards, into the centre of British politics.

In short, they're doing a Roy Jenkins in reverse - seeking to form a progressive coalition of the centre-right rather than the centre-left: a new force that will isolate Labour; stuff Mandelson, Campbell (Menzies as well as Alistair), Adonis, Shirley Williams, Ashdown and the rest of Jenkins' heirs, and dominate British politics during the early part of the new century.  Read here David Alton's account of how the Liberal Democrats' predecessors split again and again - over Unionism, coalitions and National Government - and were gradually absorbed by the Conservatives.  In the nicest possible way, Baldwin's successors are seeking to repeat history today.  If they eventually succeed, it will liberate them from the Party's right which, they surely believe, has held the Conservatives prisoner since at least the mid-1990s.  David Cameron must catch himself thinking that his lack of a majority is a stroke of wonderful fortune.

Paul Goodman


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