Last night I attended a public debate hosted by the Economist and the Stockholm Network on the subject of whether David Cameron is just a blue-rinsed Tony Blair. Speakers included Professor Dennis Kavanagh (University of Liverpool), Dr Ian Kearns (IPPR), Peter Hitchens (Mail on Sunday) and Jesse Norman. It was excellently chaired by the Economist's Johnny Grimond.
Strangely, Peter Hitchens was most brutal not about Cameron (whom he predicted would not win the next election) or Blair but about the Conservatives in general. He described the Conservative Party as both a ‘ghost brand’, like loose razorblades and Capstan full-strength cigarettes that only continue to exist because a few old people continue to buy them out of habit, and a ‘poisoned brand’, too damaged to survive. “No re-branding can rescue this hopeless party”, he said, adding that “Cameron is a blue-rinsed Blair, it is a bad thing and it will fail”.
Ian Kearns agreed that it would fail, but mainly because Cameron was linked to the 2005 manifesto. Kavanagh disagreed, arguing that Cameron was only really the editor that drew together the policy ideas of the 2005 Shadow Cabinet. Kearns did note that there were genuine differences between the two, however: Cameron is no egalitarian, does not believe in redistribution, and (perhaps cynically) has repositioned himself on foreign policy. Kearns also called for compulsory voting as a means of filling the democratic deficit.
Jesse Norman argued that the difference was that whereas Blair was “a zealot” who had “Convictions on everything; ideas on nothing” (Hitchens objected to the description of Blair as having conviction) Cameron “had at least read a book”. He claimed – between plugs of several of his books, which are at least available to download for free from his website – that Cameron was aiming to redefine conservatism as neither paternalistic nor libertarian but based more upon the thinking of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, which he (not originally) has defined as Compassionate Conservatism. He alone predicted that Cameron would win the next election.
Kavanagh lamented the rise of a permanent, professional political class, and noted an unhealthy closeness between journalists and politicians: that it is possible to talk about journalists being in the Blair camp or the Brown camp is damaging for both journalism and democracy. He also lamented the focus on the five to eight per cent of the population in less than a hundred constituencies upon which elections turn.
Among the audience, just over half agreed that David Cameron is just a blue-rinsed Tony Blair.