David Cameron has had four strong years. Now Gordon Brown is playing the posh card - and no wonder, it may just give him half a chance
It doesn’t seem that long. But David Cameron has now been leader of the British Conservative party for four years. And he’s achieved plenty. He has spruced up the Tory image, stitched up internal ruptures, and seen popular support climb and climb. Remember, Cameron had inherited a party that - more than eight years on - had still not recovered from the walloping they received at the 1997 general election from Tony Blair, a party that was still bedevilled by infighting that leader after leader - William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard - had failed to smother.
Cameron’s pitch was always centred on modernising. “We must give to this country a modern and compassionate conservatism which is right for our times and our country,” he said in his first speech as leader. His strategists had watched admiringly as Tony Blair reinvented a Labour party regarded as out of step with the times, heavily coated in the dust of opposition and in hock to special interests. They knew their task was similar. In an early exchange in the House of Commons, Cameron quipped at Blair: “You were the future once.” At one point he had even gone as far as to describe himself as the “heir to Blair”.
In 2006 Cameron attempted to soften perceptions of Tory crime policy with a call to “hug a hoodie”. The following year he was endorsing the thinking of leftwing Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. By the start of 2009, his compassionate conservatism had evolved rhetorically into “progressive conservatism”. Now the Conservatives were, he told us, the party of the poor. The message wasn’t all touchy-feely message, but it was pretty clear who was being courted: the left of centre sorts who still shudder at the name Margaret Thatcher, those for whom to vote Tory would be an act of tribal disloyalty. The right edges of the Tory party and Tory press retched at all this. But it made sense.
And it seemed to work. Which was quite an accomplishment, not least because the man piping this new tune was not, like William Hague (now shadow foreign secretary), a northern lad of humble roots. David Cameron is proper posh. His family tree is bespeckled with stockbrokers; his maternal grandfather was Sir William Malcolm Mount, 2nd Baronet and high sheriff of Berkshire
And then there‘s the entourage. The “Notting Hill set”, his closest allies, tend to be come from good breeding, not least George Osborne. The shadow chancellor has massive influence on Cameron’s thinking, and is, like Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson, an alumnus of the now infamous uber-posh Bullingdon Club. Private schools and Oxbridge run through the backstories of the shadow cabinet - more than half are privately educated.
Given the enduring importance of class - for all Tony Blair’s Estuary vowels it still runs deep in the bones of Britain - you might think these Tory toffs offer an open goal to their opponents. It certainly looked that way to the team plotting Labour’s campaign in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection in May 2008. The Tory candidate, Edward Timpson, a millionaire barrister and heir to his father’s multi-million-pound shoe repair business, was ridiculed by Labour activists as the epitome of the posh Tory. Teams of campaigners were sent on to the streets of the constituency clothed in top hat and tails, quaffing champagne, in an effort to lampoon “Tory boy” Timpson and his posh, unreconstructed party.
It didn’t work. In fact, it failed spectacularly. “What the Crewe campaign is doing is signalling that Tony Blair's Labour Party is dead and another, much less attractive, organisation has replaced it,” wrote Daniel Finkelstein in The Times on the eve of the vote. “Class warfare, even if waged against someone else's class, is spectacularly unattractive. It makes Labour seem aggressive, prejudiced, an exclusive sect more interested in your background than your ideas. Mr Blair wanted his party to be a big tent, welcoming everyone. This idea, this powerful political idea, which brought the Tory party to the edge of extinction, which brought landslide Labour majorities, is now over. And with it Labour's political hegemony.”
That sentiment was shared by many, across the political spectrum. Labour had not just lost the byelection, they‘d also lost a chunk of dignity. The class warfare kit was locked in its box.
Until now. In the House of Commons this week Gordon Brown latched on to revelations that another former Etonian, Zac Goldsmith, the aristocrat former editor of the Ecologist and candidate for a Tory safe seat at the next election, had claimed non-domicile tax benefits. Linking the news to the Tories’ controversial policy to cut inheritance tax for the wealthy, Brown said. “Their tax policy seems to have been determined on the playing fields of Eton."
Some of the papers detected the hand of Alastair Campbell - had the original New Labour spin doctor returned to draft a line or two? - but without exception Fleet Street hailed the return of class warfare.
It was a sign of desperation in the Brown camp, said commentators on the right - as did some on the left. Maybe, but recent polls have shown a dent or two in the Tory lead, and there’s no doubt that the prime minister this week scored a palpable hit. But does it resonate on the high street? Fraser Nelson, editor of rightwing weekly the Spectator argued in the Guardian this week that, while these leftwing “dog whistles” make good Westminster sport, they had no traction with the wider public. They wouldn’t, agreed former MP and Times columnist Matthew Parris, so long as Cameron refused to take the bait: “Nothing would be more counter-productive than to react to class-based attacks by ditching policies, or by going pink in the face and shouting ad hominems (in an upper-class accent) back.”
But desperate or not, it looks increasingly likely that the Labour strategy to cling on to power (even a hung parliament would be seen as a victory of sorts, given the last year or so) will depict Cameron’s Tories as rooted still in those Eton fields, oblivious to the real concerns of the British public. The Conservative demand for sharper, faster spending cuts to correct the deficit can be wound into that thesis - detached from real life, they are impervious to the real pain. And at a time when opprobrium at bankers is off the chart, Labour will hope that people might come to see the Tories as kin to the bonus-fattened tax-dodgers.
Labour strategists will tell you that the first thing people in focus groups offer when asked for an image to describe David Cameron is that of the Tory leader cycling in to Westminster, dating from 2006. A pretty, modern picture - except that the reason it’s memorable is because, it was revealed, his chauffeur-driven official car was travelling close behind, briefcase on board.
If Brown can stoke that sense that Cameron is not what he claims to be, he could really be on to something. If he can staple the Zac Goldsmith/inheritance tax/harsh-cutting charge sheet to Cameron’s gold-inked curriculum vitae, and wave it persuasively at the public, who knows how the gap might narrow. And if he can bundle all that up into public resentment - fury, even - about the bankers, just maybe it will be a tight contest next year after all. The top-hat histrionics of the Crewe campaign should be binned forever, but that doesn't mean that the posh card can't be played, carefully, from time to time.