Well, today David Cameron made the speech that made clear what his opponents have been saying all along: That his first year or two as leader were a complete fiction designed to de-toxify the Tory brand. Now that he’s ahead in the polls, he feels comfortable speaking with conviction about the things he actually believes. Lets take a quick look at some of the contrasts.
In his speech accepting the leadership of the party, Cameron said:
We need to change the way we feel. No more grumbling about modern Britain. I love this country as it is, not as it was, and I believe our best days lie ahead.
Today’s Cameron, though, seems to have no problems grumbling about modern Britain, even criticising as out of touch those who caution against his exaggerated rhetoric:
Some say our society isn’t broken. I wonder what world they live in. Leave aside that almost two million children are brought up in households where no one works. Or that there are housing estates in Britain where people have a lower life expectancy than in the Gaza Strip. Just consider the senseless, barbaric violence on our streets. Children killing children. Twenty-seven kids murdered on the streets of London this year. A gun crime every hour. A serious knife crime every half hour. A million victims from alcohol related-attacks.
But it’s not just the crime; not even the anti-social behaviour. It’s the angry, harsh culture of incivility that seems to be all around us. When in one generation we seem to have abandoned the habits of all human history that in a civilised society, adults have a proper role – a responsibility – to uphold rules and order in the public realm not just for their own children but for other people’s too.
2005’s Cameron was keen that
my children, your children, grow up in a country where the streets are safe, the public space isn’t filthy, where it isn’t a hassle to get around, you can own your own home and where climate change and the environment aren’t an afterthought.
but today’s Cameron made the environment exactly that, tacking onto the end of his speech a solitary sentence on the environment proper, just before coming into the final stretch of his speech:
We changed because knew we had to make ourselves relevant to the twenty-first century.
You didn’t champion green politics as greenwash, but because climate change is devastating our environment because the energy gap is a real and growing threat to our security and because $100-a-barrel oil is hitting families every time they fill up their car and pay their heating bills.
To be fair, the other part of the speech that mentioned the environment was this:
I am also a child of my time. I want a clean environment as well as a safe one.
What strikes you about these two quotes? Most obvious is how far the environment has fallen down the agenda. Compare it to, say, this bit of his 2006 leader’s speech to conference:
As you might have gathered by now, I am passionate about our environment. It’s a very personal commitment. I grew up in the countryside. I’ve always loved the outdoors. As you can see if you look around this conference, I’m quite keen on trees.
We saw in our debate on Monday the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth – sustainable prosperity. The Stern report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp. But it will also say that the price of inaction gets higher every day.
So I will not pretend to you that it will be easy. That there will be no pain or sacrifice. If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Today, I want to tell the British people some uncomfortable truths. There is a price for progress in tackling climate change. Yes of course low-energy light bulbs, hybrid cars – even a windmill on your roof can make a difference and also save money.
But these things are not enough. Government must show leadership by setting the right framework. Binding targets for carbon reduction, year on year. That would create a price for carbon in our economy. What does that mean? It means that things which produce more carbon will get more expensive. Going green is not some fashionable, pain-free option.
It will place a responsibility on business. It will place a responsibility on all of us. That is the point. Tackling climate change is our social responsibility – to the next generation.
And I’ll tell you something:In politics, it’s much easier to take steps that will be painful if political parties work together, instead of playing it for partisan advantage. That’s what we have offered to do. We have asked Tony Blair to put a climate change bill in the Queen’s speech. If he does, we’ll back it. So come on, prime minister. It’s your last few months in office. It’s your last Queen’s speech. Use it to do something for the environment.
At no point in 2008’s speech was there a section on the environment as an issue. In the first quote, the environment is an example of a change to the Tory party. In the second, it’s a piece of character window-dressing for Brand Cameron. Neither sees any hint of a policy direction like 2006’s quote. In both cases, the issue is not important in and of itself, but because of what it supposedly says about Cameron or the changes he has brought to the party. If that isn’t a clear demonstration from Cameron that he doesn’t really care about the environment as an issue, he merely recognises its potency as a vehicle for changing public perception of him and his party, then I don’t know what is.
Some of the Cameron of the past even proves to be quite prophetic about the present. For instance:
I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back.
Appropriately enough, today’s more sober, substantive speech sounded very much more like a Tory speech; no sentence would have been out of place in the Daily Mail.
Let’s also note that whilst the Tories are far too “responsible” to make commitments to cut taxes on low income taxpayers (managing only a fairly pathetic, fiddling Council Tax Freeze that has been taken apart skillfully elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that one here), they aren’t beyond making commitments to help payers of Inheritance Tax, and now also Corporation Tax. The only real commitment that Cameron has made that will genuinely affect most people on low incomes is his moralising Marriage Bonus.
The real turning point in British politics in the last year or two was not Brown’s bottled election, it was Cameron’s back-pedalling on grammar schools, and the quiet distancing of the party from the Goldsmith-Gummer review. That was the point where it became clear that his party could only be pushed so far before they would grumble too much. That is the turnaround that could really make a difference to our country in the long run, not whether Gordon Brown hung on for a couple more years and achieved very little other than reacting to events.