Thursday, 14 July 2016

Out with the New. In with the Old.

I can’t pretend that today is a good day. It is quite literally the end of an era in UK Politics.

It was eleven or twelve years ago, 2004 or 2005, when I first read about the group of politicians who were known at the time as the ‘Notting Hill Set’. David Cameron, George Osborne, Steve Hilton and Michael Gove were at the centre of a group who were plotting their rise to power at the Centre of the Conservative party.

I had absolutely no doubt they would achieve it because, at the time, the Conservative party was in a fairly dire state and seemed to lack almost any other talent. 

Since being wiped out at the 1997 election, after 18 years of Conservative government, the Conservative party was floundering. In 2002 Theresa May, as party chairman, had attempted to confront the problem by announcing at the Conservative Conference of that year that the Conservatives were thought of as ‘The Nasty Party’.

It was a spectacular own-goal. Rather than forcing the Conservative party to confront it’s limitations and somehow reinvent itself as a result of her utterly un-amazing insight, instead her words just served to ‘brand’ the party with a particularly damaging sound-bite. Frankly her words were little more than a grasp of the obvious and served no positive purpose.

The problem with Theresa May’s analysis at the time, and the analysis of many of her generation in the Conservative party then was that they were convinced that the Conservatives simply had a presentation problem. They felt they had the substance but, through no fault of their own, were branded incorrectly. There was evidence to support this analysis. Lord Saatchi did blind tests with focus groups on policies and found that people liked the policies he described right up until the moment they realised that they were Conservative policies.

Whilst Theresa May was navel gazing, telling the nation how terrible the Conservative party was and doing absolutely nothing recognisable to rebuild the Conservative party at grassroots level (her job as party chairman), another group were quietly working on the problem. 

I think it was either the 2003 or 2004 Conservative conference when David Cameron and George Osborne did a Question and Answer session on various policy areas with an audience of Conservative members. They were a breath of fresh-air. They looked and sounded young, sharp, thoughtful and very different from the grey-haired old fogeys of the Conservative party that we were all used to at the time. 

I was watching the Conference on TV while doing some decorating. But by the end of the session I had discarded the paint-brush and was absorbed watching what I knew was the future of the Conservative party. By the end of it I was convinced I had seen the next Conservative prime minister - the only question was which of them it would be but I correctly guessed that the older David Cameron was the most likely candidate.

The Leadership election campaign of 2005, with David Cameron up against David Davies, was the moment at which the leadership of the Conservative party skipped a generation. Instead of Davis becoming leader, the membership saw a fresh new approach and chose Cameron.

Which for me, makes the events of the last couple of days seem very strange. Instead of David Cameron and George Osborne, born in the 1960s and early 1970s, being replaced by the next generation as you might expect, in fact the reverse of the events of 2005 has occurred. 

The Conservative leadership are instead today those born in the 1950’s.. Theresa May is 59 years old and Philip Hammond (Chancellor) is 60. David Davis, has finally made it to Secretary of State at retirement age - he is 67!

UK Politics today is in a bit of a mess. The Labour party has over a hundred MPs in Parliament who don’t support their leader but who aren’t supported by their membership. The Liberal Democrats are practically invisible and UKIP are now a party without a cause or a leader. And the Conservatives have replaced their leadership with an older generation. It seems to me there is a political vacuum - I wonder now how it will be filled?

David Cameron’s final words in Parliament were that he ‘was the future once’… Ironically it now seems that the future for the Conservative party is the past.. strange times.


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