How are you? The question is genuine. I’ve been wondering for a while how you felt you were getting on, and thought I’d write to enquire. Sometimes I wonder if you’re really enjoying yourself, despite the tales of ‘chillaxing’ and your obviously sociable, family-oriented demeanour. Legend has it that you wanted to become Prime Minister because you thought you’d “be good at it”, and for about eighteen months, many thought you might be right. Do you still think you’re good at it? Legend also has it that your wife wants you out of there before too long, and you might give your friend in Number Eleven a go. Quite the reverse of how things were under Tony Blair.
Aah, Tony Blair. The man whose psychotic memoirs were apparently bandied around by the neo-con end of your Cabinet, as a manual for how to run a government. The man who introduced denim to Downing Street. The man who so bewitched the Conservative Party – seeing off opposition leaders like Graeme Smith sees off England cricket captains - that eventually they scrabbled around in search of their own version. If you hadn’t existed, William Hague and Michael Gove would have sought to invent you, in a grizzly Frankensteinian experiment in a basement somewhere under Notting Hill.
You looked the part at your famous 2005 Conference speech, where you spoke informally without notes or teleprompter. It was meant to signal a new style of Tory politics, relaxed and unthreatening. You sought to make a spectacle of your own nervelessness, and it worked. Seven years on, though, one wonders whether this is enough. Tony Blair had that very rare, Clinton-esque ability to put others at ease. You have a somewhat less rare, Eton-esque ability to put yourself at ease. To start with we probably conflated the two, but the difference becomes more apparent as your government stumbles its way to the finish line.
Let me ask you this: do you really believe in what you’re doing? Blair did (that was part of the problem). Do you even believe, for example, that the poor and sick are as feckless as your government is increasingly implying? Blair may have been many things, but he was not a flip-flopper, as Americans like to say. I wonder if you’re even all that rightwing. Your most severe shortcoming, I suggest, is that you lack imagination.
You have said in the past that your support for the NHS was nurtured over the course of the life and death of your disabled son. You saw at first-hand what the NHS did, how valuable it is, and the humanity it offers. What you said was touching and no doubt honest. But is that how your politics works? Do you need to be personally affected by an institution, before you can understand its value? If so, you have entirely misunderstood the nature of public life. This isn’t about being leftwing or rightwing. Thatcher’s hatred for the trade unions was not forged as a result of her rubbish going uncollected or her train being cancelled. It was more visceral, ideological and universal than that. Privilege may not have made you selfish or conservative, but it may have made you myopic.
The early years of your leadership were spent trying to ‘de-toxify’ the brand of the Conservative Party, to break the mental association between ‘Tory’ and images of Peter Lilley and John Redwood clapping through another brutally misanthropic policy. This took a degree of guts on your part, given how toxic the ‘brand’ had become, and how silly William Hague had looked wandering around the Notting Hill Carnival in a baseball cap. You clearly knew that your chutzpah was up to the job, and that your judgement regarding informal mores wouldn’t let you down. Cultural sociology was on your side in this respect: West London Etonians are now comfortable amidst celebrity and narcotic culture, probably more so than they are in the traditional bastions of the establishment (see how Eton now churns out more famous actors than Cabinet Ministers).
But if you can, try and think about this. The Conservative Party is not just a ‘brand’, but a powerful political institution which has often sought to use that power in a vicious and hateful way over decades. The reason (in your parlance) that this sort of ‘brand’ becomes ‘toxic’ is that the collective memory of suffering is more powerful than anything a branding consultant or, for that matter, a policy programme is able to shift. Collective memory of suffering is the last bastion of political resistance, and is never given up for nothing, as Blair and Mandelson understood with respect to Northern Ireland. In 1980-81, two million manufacturing jobs were lost in Britain, in around eighteen months. The personal, local and family consequences of that - quite deliberate - political strategy are difficult for you or I to fathom, but they haven't disappeared. I don’t pretend to be some empathy master, but I’m not the one demanding that people give more of their energies, time and money away to recreate some fictitious Tocquevillian Albion called ‘the Big Society’. The ‘Big Society’ is a laudable thing, but, as I’ve written once or twice before, it is frustratingly supplementary to economic security, and not substitutive.
People remember things that the Conservative Party has done and stood for. They suspect that the Conservative Party still does and stands for them. If they’re wrong, then you have to act differently. But how dare you suggest that people’s memories of the past can be re-shaped through a re-branding exercise. How far back does your political and cultural memory go precisely? Does it not extend any further back than Euro96? Shame on you. A Conservative without a sense of history is just a whining, pleading bully with a victim complex, refusing to travel and refusing to see, demanding that everyone else behave differently except themselves. If you want examples, take a look at the new generation of Tory MPs behind you, each one blissed out on their own private rage, grabbing randomly at Victorian moral agendas as if playing supermarket sweep in a fancy dress store. Their kitsch pomposity makes a mockery of Parliament, reducing representative democracy to a form of live blogging, where everyone competes to complain and cackle the loudest. Their choice of politics as a basis on which to experiment with their own affected identities is entirely arbitrary. On this, at least, you must agree with me.
Maybe history will be kind to you, David, if it recognises quite what an appalling pool of political possibilities your Party offered to you. Maybe this is what you will reflect on in the long decades after you have left power. I hope you use those years to read heavily and, eventually, to write. A sixty-year-old David Cameron will have fascinating things to say about the sad times we now live through, and the sidings that our political classes have gone down. You’ll have better insights into your forty-something self by then, what led you into politics in the first place, and whether you really did have a vision of a better (you’ll have long dropped the ‘bigger’) society after all. I hope so.
Good luck with the last two years.