David Cameron and his Tories have Gordon Brown on the run

MICHAEL PETROU September 22 2008


David Cameron and his Tories have Gordon Brown on the run

MICHAEL PETROU September 22 2008


David Cameron and his Tories have Gordon Brown on the run


During his 10 years as British prime minister, Tony Blair confronted and dispatched four Conservative Party leaders without breaking much of a sweat. There was little reason to believe things would be different on Dec. 7, 2005, when he faced David Cameron, the newly minted Tory leader, who rose in the House of Commons to challenge him during his first Prime Minister’s Questions as leader of the opposition. Cameron, only 39 years old, had assumed office the day before after a come-from-behind leadership campaign that surprised many observers. He argued that the Conservative Party needed to modernize and widen its appeal, but he spoke in a plummy accent that reminded listeners of fox hunts and silverware. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, and his smooth, boyish face looked as though it wouldn’t grow a beard if he were stood on his head. Easy pickings, it seemed, for a scrapper like Blair.

Cameron’s first strike was tactical—an unexpected stiletto thrust to hit Blair where he was weak. Blair was facing a backbench revolt over reforms he wanted to make to the education system. Cameron assured the government of his party’s support, thereby underlining divisions within government ranks. His next blow was a blunt, strategic wallop. “I want to talk about the future,” Cameron said, and then looked across the narrow floor of the House to Blair. “He was the future, once.” Cameron’s remarks might have been spun as precocious boasting at the time. No longer. The Labour Party under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who took the leadership mantle from Blair a little more than a year ago, is facing not just electoral defeat, but quite possibly a disaster from which it will take a decade or more to recover. David Cameron, a

man many Britons would have struggled to identify only three years ago, can now claim to represent the future of British politics without anyone snickering. Most opinion polls place his Tories 20 points above Labour. He will almost certainly become the next prime minister of the United Kingdom.

Cameron’s rapid ascendancy owes much to the fall of his opponent. Brown served as chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister, for 10 years under Blair. But he always wanted the top job himself. Brown

and Blair were both elected for the first time in 1983. They were rising stars in the Labour Party and even shared an office for a while. Brown was perceived as more substantial, if less exciting, than the younger Blair. But when party leader John Smith died suddenly in 1994, it was to Blair, not Brown, that Labour looked for renewal. Brown was devastated. “He was the big brother,” Simon Hoggart, a political sketch writer for the Guardian, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “Imagine a duke dying and the family lawyer calling in the eldest son and saying, ‘Look, I know you’re the eldest son, and you’re supposed to inherit all the land, but your younger brother looks better on television.’ It would be a crushing blow.

And Brown never forgave Blair for that.”

He did, however, secure a consolation prize. It is widely believed that the two men hatched a deal at the Granita restaurant in central London in which Brown agreed not to run against Blair, if Blair would later step down as prime minister and make way for Brown. Everything went according to plan, for a while. But after Blair contested a second election, tensions between the two grew. Blair’s popularity among voters and within the Labour Party suffered when he sent British troops to Iraq as part of the American-led invasion to depose Saddam

Hussein. Despite this, he contested and won a third general election in 2005. But Brown’s supporters knew he was weakened. They plotted and pressured Blair to quit. Finally, reluctantly, he agreed to do so, endorsing Brown as his successor last May.

Brown enjoyed an initial political honeymoon. The British had grown tired of Blair, and Brown’s sombre, brooding persona suited them last summer, following floods, a failed terrorist attack, and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The warm feelings didn’t last. Some of the reasons for Brown’s declining popularity, among them rising food and energy prices, are not his fault. But after coveting power for 10 years, Brown had little to offer voters once he finally got it. “A lot of people, myself as well, I’m afraid, we expected some great plan to be brought out of the drawer,” says Tony Travers, a political science professor at the London School of Economics. “And of course there was nothing. Nothing at all—to the point that Gordon Brown has been able to publicly demonstrate his indecision.”

This touches on a deeper character flaw, and it is one that now even an inspirational campaign platform is unlikely to fix. Brown seems pathologically unable to make tough choices quickly. “If Gordon Brown was walking past a lake and saw a small child drowning in it, he would immediately leap into action and set up a committee to investigate the best path forward,” Hoggart said. “He seems to live in the agony of indecision.” Sarah, Brown’s wife, says her husband often

works until 4 a.m. According to Hoggart, he spends this time fretting over the details of matters that aren’t that important to begin with. “He always bangs on about his vision, but his vision seems to be sitting up all night going through numbers,” Hoggart says. Throw in Brown’s habit of chewing his fingernails, and it adds up to an image of an obsessive man who can’t absorb or act on the big picture. Brown, who was often compared to former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, has now inherited a variation of Martin’s moniker. He’s been dubbed “The Ditherer,” and after Brown compared himself to Heathcliff, the troubled protagonist in an Emily Bronte novel, British wags have taken to referring to the PM’s residence as “Dithering Heights.”

Brown earned the nickname last fall, when he ordered his party to prepare for a snap election—and then called it off. His incredible claim that his decision was not motivated by slipping poll numbers but by a desire to develop policies and demonstrate his “vision for change” angered Britons, who felt


their collective intelligence had been insulted. It also allowed Cameron to mercilessly mock him in the House of Commons—most cuttingly by quoting from Brown’s own book, Courage, a collection of essays on heroic figures such as Nelson Mandela, who stood by their convictions in the face of adversity. “Does he remember writing this?” Cameron asked during Prime Minister’s Questions, and then read from Brown’s book: “ ‘As far back as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by men and women of courage, stories of people who took brave decisions in the service of great causes, especially when more comfortable and far less dangerous alternatives were open to them.’ Does he realize what a phony he now looks?”

Brown responded lamely that no one from the Conservative front bench had signed a petition posted on the Downing Street website calling for an election. The weekly matchups between Cameron and Brown have unfolded in a similar fashion ever since. That those who have spent time with Brown say he can be relaxed and charming in private doesn’t matter. He’s judged on his public image, and that has become irrevocably tarnished.

avid Cameron hasn’t reached the cusp i of power simply by kicking Brown when I he stumbles. He was first elected to Parliament in 2001, winning the rural Oxfordshire riding of Witney, which he has held ever since. But his rise to the top of his party began after the 2005 general election, which saw a tired and stale Labour Party thump the Tories, led by the lacklustre Michael Howard, for the third straight time. Conservative brass finally woke up to the fact that their party, in its current form, was unelectable and needed a radical change. “In the 1990s, none of my friends voted Tory,” Gareth Compton, 36, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham, told Maclean’s, “ft was like being rude at a dinner party.”

Even before the 2005 election, a group of mostiy young, reform-minded Conservatives

began meeting over dinner to plan how to remake their party after the expected electoral defeat. Michael Gove, a former journalist at the Times whom Cameron had convinced to enter politics, hosted the first such dinner at a restaurant in the exclusive London neighbourhood of Mayfair. Cameron was there. The two were old friends; they’d been at Oxford together, and Gove was a guest at Cameron’s stag party—a tame affair—in 1996. “We were all thinking about ideas. We knew we had to change,” Gove to\d Maclean’s. “The issue was our unbudgeable unpopularity. We had spent too much time talking about issues that pleased our supporters and not enough on those that mattered to the greater population.” Trashing the European Union, for example, resonated with long-time Tories, but it didn’t win the party new votes.

Howard agreed to step down as leader shortly after the election to make way for new blood. There were several prospective candidates to champion the message that the Conservative Party needed to modernize. Gove thought Cameron was the best choice for renewal and backed him even before Cameron had publicly decided to run. “I had known him for 20 years, and I knew he had these qualities—coolness under fire, good judgment, a great speaker.”

The latter is what vaulted Cameron ahead

of other candidates at the Conservative Party conference in October 2005. He delivered his speech without notes, speaking of the future and a “compassionate Conservatism.” He has built on this message since—promising to rebuild society rather than cut taxes or dramatically reduce the role of the state in people’s lives. “We will be as radical in social reform as Margaret Thatcher was in economic reform,” he wrote recently. Cameron is fond of saying he will use conservative means to achieve progressive results. He’s even embraced environmentalism, and was pleased to be photographed cycling to Westminster (while his shoes and briefcase were delivered separately by car).

Cameron thinks all this has been necessary to decontaminate the Tory brand. He has said that before he can get voters to sign on to difficult or challenging policies, he needs to convince them that his party is decent and reasonable and that he is a practical person who understands the concerns of average people. But Cameron also faces accusations that his soothing words hide an absence of convictions and solid ideas. “He’s obviously very charming and fairly charismatic. But I think he lacks the substance and depth that voters look for,” Sarah Owen, a Labour Party member, told Maclean’s. Coming from a par-

tisan source, these barbs are predictable. But similar criticisms have flown from Tories such as Robin Harris, a former director of the Conservative Party’s research department, and Cameron’s boss when Cameron worked there for several years after graduating from university. “I don’t think that in any shape or form he could be described as a Conservative in philosophical terms,” Harris says. “He has no principled sense of direction; his only sense of direction is upward. The opportunism he displays is deplorable.”

Gove, Cameron’s ally, rejects this. “Pragmatism and opportunism are pejorative terms for what someone else might call commonsense politics and reasonableness,” he says. And James Hanning, deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday and the co-author of a recent biography on Cameron, believes that Cameron’s convictions, or “enthusiasms,” even when recently adopted, as is the case with his avowed environmentalism, are likely genuine. “There is a sort of sweet-naturedness, almost childishness, in his enthusiasm for things,” Hanning says.

Hanning argues that Cameron’s political tenets are Conservative, but he says they more closely resemble the principles of Harold Macmillan, a centrist who was Conservative prime minister from 1957 to 1963, rather than those of the more revolutionary Margaret Thatcher. This doesn’t mean that Cameron is not shrewd or pragmatic. “He believes in what works,” Hanning says. “He’s a democratic politician, and he knows what needs to be done. He has a very good nose for which way the wind blows.”

The political winds in Britain have changed directions and are blowing stronger. Gordon Brown’s MPs are mutinous. The only thing preventing them from twisting a knife in the Prime Minister’s back is the fear that replacing him before the next election will make things worse. Brown can delay that election until 2010. It’s possible that his fortunes will change once more between now and then, but it’s unlikely. “It’s now all terribly turning to ashes,” says Hoggart. “I don’t see the Tories losing unless they make catastrophic errors. And I don’t think they will.” M