Call me old fashioned, but I’ve always admired a man or woman who finishes what they start. In our modern world of diminishing attention spans and disposable fashion, the man who sticks steadily to a task until it’s done is a rare and admirable beast. That’s why I have to admit to a sneaking regard for David Cameron and the measured, unswerving way in which he has gone about ‘de-modernising’ and ‘re-toxifying’ his party, a process we may have seen come finally to fruition this week.
No image could sum up that process more succinctly than that of the Chancellor at the Para-Olympics on Monday, his grin curdling on his lips as the full horror of the moment dawned on him. As a focus group test of his personal popularity and public support for double dip-austerity it provided a clear steer, I thought, and was cheaper, no doubt, than getting some psephologist to ask the questions – but he still might have been better advised to hold it behind closed doors!
And no action could better symbolise his Government’s acceptance of their ‘re-toxic’ status than the following day’s reshuffle. A reshuffle which sought not to build bridges with Liberal Coalition partners, nor to reinforce the moderate, centrist credentials which Cameron paraded in opposition, but rather one in which the Tories unashamedly embraced their dark side, protecting and promoting right-wingers from across the party: Grayling to Justice, Paterson to Defra, Hunt to Health, Jones to Wales.
So out with hugging hoodies or huskies – Grayling would sooner bang up the former, and Paterson doesn’t apparently believe the latter’s habitat is in jeopardy – and in with ‘prison works ’and scepticism on climate change. Writing in the Spectator, James Forsythe appears to share this view, claiming that the Tory leadership is “attempting to discard the excesses of Tory modernisation”.
That some on the right, at the Spectator or the Telegraph, might think this a necessary or good thing should surprise no-one, but for a Prime Minister who seemed sincere in trying to drag his party out of the darkness and back somewhere close to the centre ground, to adopt it as a strategy needs some explanation.
There are of course two possible answers to the conundrum: either this Prime Minister has changed his mind and now thinks the Tory Party is best placed to win elections not from the moderate centre but from the radical right, or he is now so weak – wracked by his swivel-eyed backbenchers and lashed to his Chancellor’s ambition – that he has no choice by to end all pretence at having modernised his Tories.
The latter seems more likely, especially when one notes how, despite the ignominy of his barracking at the Olympic stadium, the fingerprints of the Chancellor are all over this reshuffle. Perhaps Mr Cameron will surprise us later in the week when he unveils the latest re-launch of their failing economic strategy. Perhaps he’ll shake free of his Chancellor’s bonds and announce policies to build the demand that might generate jobs and growth in Britain. But don’t hold your breath, because the chorus of TINATA (there is no alternative to austerity) didn’t seem any less loud at PMQs yesterday afternoon and the previews of new policies we’ve been hearing since Sunday seem as insipid and ineffective as ever, dismissed already in Monday’s FT as a mere ‘rebranding exercise’ unlikely to have any meaningful impact.
No, more of the same seems certain to be on the menu from a Government that is painting itself ever tighter into a political and economic corner. Be under no illusion, this was always a right-wing, ideologically driven administration, all that changed this week was that the fig leaf of modernity and moderation fell shamelessly to the floor.
Owen Smith MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales