David Cameron made a speech at the Open University this week on reforming government, but before he did so he published it in basic form as an essay in The Guardian. The paper was sceptical about Cameron’s promises, writing in a leader that, “Although the Cameronian canvas for reform is broad, some extraordinarily big spaces are left blank.” (This could be taken to describe the whole Cameronian project.) The next day, Simon Jenkins took him apart with less politesse. But the details of what Cameron was promising – or, given his slippery language and equivocating constructions, not, as the case may be – were less important than what he was really doing in the piece: folding the current political crisis into his long-standing narrative, the Tory diagnosis of what is rotten in heart of modern Britain. “The anger [experience by voters] [… is] the result of people’s slow but sure realisation that they have very little control over the world around them,” he wrote, immediately linked any proper response to the expenses scandal with what are already Tory positions.
In an interview in today’s Telegraph, Cameron takes a more party political approach and inevitably winds up sounding less like a crusading reformer and more like a calculating party leader. In the Guardian piece, he promised fewer MPs and a redrawing of boundaries, but no proportional representation – an obvious attack on Labour’s ability to mount successful assaults on the Tories at election time. To this end, the Telegraph’s other frontpage story today – that Brown is considering drafting LibDems into his government at the next reshuffle – is more interesting, being a bold and inclusive response to crisis, rather than a nakedly self-interested one. Yet the strength of Cameron’s narrative (supported on the very day of its publication by none other than Boris Johnson) should not be undermined – as Drew Westen has argued, the ability to establish narratives is in politics the key to high office. From the usual cheerleaders like Iain Dale to more sceptical voices at LabourHome, Cameron’s ideas – and the reasoning behind them – gained traction and acceptance.
This is very clever stuff. Even if the reforming manifesto is piecemeal and patchy, it is at least a manifesto, and one with a strong supporting architecture. It’s more than Gordon Brown has so far mustered, for sure, and Political Betting has the figures: not good times for Labour. The Tories are making the running. They remain a party committed to dismantling this country’s means of protecting its most vulnerable citizens (turning instead to what amounts to enlightened philanthropy as an alternative) – but Cameron in particular has a means of framing policies coherently which Labour grossly lacks. In the wake of yet more MPs resigning, and widespread cynicism and scepticism with politicians of every stripe, Cameron’s narrative may not yet have sunk to the roots of discourse. But, barring a credible alternative, it assuredly will.