Looking at the praise being heaped on David Cameron lately, you’d think he had done a great deal. Obviously, I have been very critical of Cameron since he first ascended to the leadership, and it seems to me that he still has yet to prove that he can lead the Tories to general election success. It is true that Labour was routed in local council elections (again), and it is true that Brown avoided calling a general election last year out of fear of a severely reduced majority or outright defeat. It is also true that Cameron raked him over the coals in very satisfying fashion in the weeks that followed, and Cameron saved himself from being ousted last year in yet another round of Tory bloodletting by giving a bravura performance at Blackpool. That he was in some real danger of a revolt on the eve of party conference should remind us that the veneer of unity and success that the Tories have at the moment is extremely thin and will not endure many setbacks. Whether or not the “modernisers” in the party are successful in making the Tories electable again (I will believe it when I see it in a general election win), it is much more open to question whether their model has any bearing for Republicans. Brooks thinks that it does, while casually ignoring all those areas in which the Tories are taking positions on the war and crime that might actually help revive the GOP over here if the latter imitated them. Boris Johnson’s fairly remarkable mayoral victory is a good example of the differences between the British and American cases: the sort of candidate who can win the mayoralty of a major European city is not going to translate readily to most parts of America. Meanwhile, Brooks acknowledges:
Some of this is famously gauzy, and Cameron is often disdained as a mere charmer. But politically it works.
Yes, politically it works because for the moment it is still just on paper and has not been tried, and the Tories have the fortune to be facing one of the most unpopular governments in recent decades. Yet what the brief revival in Tory fortunes shows is how much the Tories have simply conceded to the legacy of New Labour, just as the success of Democrats here in closely divided and conservative districts reveals how much they have conceded to cultural conservatism in recruiting their candidates. Me-tooism can and will win elections, at least for a while, but ultimately it leaves no legacy and empowers the other party by endorsing or being seen to endorse its principles.
Where I think Hague, Duncan-Smith and Howard continually went wrong was in their absolute insistence on aping most of the worst trends in the Bush Era, particularly as regards foreign policy, and the conscious cultivation of a kind of Tory neoconservatism in some circles. Where Cameron has seemed to go wrong in the last two years is in his obsession with striking poses and engaging in symbolic repudiations of the old Thatcherite model. I can hardly disagree in principle with the goal of “denser social networks” or the promotion of decentralism, assuming that these are what they seem to be and not codes for government initiatives akin to Blair’s devolution and regionalism, but it seems to me that the constant talk about “society” carries within it a misguided hostility to Thatcher and forgets that every half-baked scheme of the left has employed rhetoric about society that prompted Thatcher’s famous rejection of the abstraction.