What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

October 30, 2005

Time and tide waits for no politician

Fairest to me of all delights
That makes this earth a heaven,
Is the joy of finding it half-past six,
When I thought it was half-past seven.

Success in politics, as in comedy, is all about timing. Some have it, some don’t. Today, as he wound the clock back one hour, I wonder if David Davis secretly wished he could keep on turning? Perhaps to a month ago, before he mumbled his way through that conference speech, and self-imploded his second and final Tory leadership challenge. And I wonder if Gordon Brown were secretly wishing the clocks could have moved forward? Perhaps to that as yet unspecified time when Mr Blair will bequeath him the New Labour Government, rather as an older brother might discard his tatty and unfashionable hand-me-downs.

It all looked so different when Messrs Brown and Davis were the shoo-ins for their respective parties: but Spring forward, Fall back.

The prevailing wisdom among the Chancellor’s supporters had gone something like this: two years of Tony, a graceful handover-cum-coronation, two years of honeymoon for Mr Brown, then a triumphant election victory. But that was back in May, when Mr Brown was widely credited with saving Mr Blair’s electoral skin, as the two of them toured Britain with their ‘Vote for one, get the other free’ message. Then, of course, July saw Mr Blair re-assert his authority, as the vicious synchronicity of the London Olympics announcement and 7/7 bombings allowed him to promenade his finely-tuned ‘pained resolution’ rhetoric.

But the hyper-kinesis of the last month has smashed to smithereens even that topsy-turvy summer. Ever since the newcomer, David Cameron, entered stage right, ad libbing as Mr Blair’s Mini-Me, his opponents – both Tory and Labour – have been trying desperately to stick to the script they helped write. No one, neither Mr Brown nor Mr Davis, wants to be upstaged by Mr Cameron: to end up typecast as his supporting actor.

Ten weeks ago, I wrote an article comparing the then Tory leadership contenders to the Seven Dwarves of fairytale yore. With hindsight, I see now that I blundered in labelling Mr Davis as Grumpy. In fact, the dwarf he now most resembles is a White Dwarf: an average-size star, which, after it has shed its outside layers, becomes “a tiny ball of degenerate matter not massive enough for further fusion to take place, supported only by degeneracy pressure”, according to Wikipedia. Harsh, but fair.

No one can dispute Mr Cameron’s sense of timing. Less than one month ago, a YouGov poll in The Daily Telegraph suggested only one in ten voters could identify the Tories’ new Sun King, compared with recognition factors of 83% for Ken Clarke, 57% for Mr Davis and 19% for Liam Fox. Mr Cameron has since eclipsed them all, earning the dubious pleasure of what will doubtless be the first of many Private Eye covers. An ICM poll today suggested almost three-quarters of Tory members would plump for him. Which means we will have opportunity soon enough to discover if the Sun King is more than just a shooting star.

All this has left Labour looking nervously over its shoulder (especially if they’re called Walter Wolfgang). As the Scottish writer, Eric Linklater, put it: “At my back I often hear Time’s winged chariot changing gear.”

The Tories have – or at least think they have, which may amount to the same thing – their own Blair-lite. If, and surely when, the dour, brooding, stentorian Mr Brown eventually swaps his role as Last Word of the Treasury to become its First Lord, will the comparison with the smiling, youthful, modern Mr Cameron be helpful to the Labour cause? Will it enable Labour to pitch the next election as battle-hardened experience versus silver-spooned naivety? Or will it be viewed as glum-faced Presbyterianism against fresh-faced optimism?

That the questions are even being asked points to the sea-change in British politics we have witnessed in the last month. And that some are suggesting Labour may also now wish to skip a generation points to the universal truth underpinning Sir Robin Day’s waspish observation to John Nott that he was a “a transient, here today and, if I may say so, gone tomorrow politician”.

Time and tide wait for no man. If either Mr Davis or Mr Brown should be at all depressed by their inability to control the temporal, they might at least comfort themselves with the thought that no politician is exempt: how President Bush must wish he could have stopped the clock on 3rd November, 2004, the last time he appeared in charge of his own destiny.

October 28, 2005

Simon Jenkins: writing with forked pen

As the voice of Liberal England, Jonathan Calder, noted a couple of days ago , Simon Jenkins appears charmingly content to fit his voice to his readership. On Wednesday, he biffed Blair for giving parents some say in their kids’ education:
The education white paper offers a vision of a "parent-led" state secondary-school system. Its key institution is the "self-governing school free to parents", a copy of the Tories' grant-maintained school that Labour once derided. Parents will be able to control a school's "ethos and individualism". As one parent briskly put it to me, "We can keep out the blacks."… Most parents cannot and do not want to roam the country in search of the "school of their choice", even if the transport system could stand the strain. They want the school closest to where they live to be an excellent one, period.
Of course, the best state schools already have a pretty effective racial screening process: it’s called the housing market, and it means that the poorer communities too often don’t get a look in.

And of course parents would prefer their local school “to be an excellent one, period”. Who knows, though, they might even prefer the option of two excellent local schools offering different curriculums, a different ethos, different extra-curricular activities, etc.

Perhaps Mr Jenkins doesn’t feel parents should bother their little heads with such minor concerns?

But all this then made for a bizarre experience today to read Mr Jenkins’s article for The Spectator, headlined Independence for Oxford. Here we read:
The government last week proposed what is a de facto voucher scheme for English secondary schools. They can be self-governing institutions with the freedom to determine their ethos and accept [financial] contributions from parents and others. Oxford would be no different in principle.
So let me get this straight, Mr Jenkins: you are happy to champion independence for educational institutions which are free to determine their own futures when writing for The Spectator – but equally happy to diss it as terrible idea when writing for The Guardian? It's one way of achieving balance, I guess.

October 26, 2005

Giving parents real power: purchasing power

Being a school governor is an educative experience: I offer two illustrations. A couple of years ago, the state primary school where I am a governor was 'Ofsted-ed'. I have long felt there is great value in being subject to outside scrutiny. If nothing else, it forces you to look at yourself as others see you.

In fact, I found the inspection to be a surprisingly negative experience. The four-day whirlwind reconnoitre did highlight some important issues; but this 'speed-rating' left a nasty taste in the mouths of those on the receiving end. No reputable organisation would handle its appraisals in such an interrogative fashion.

Then last week I attended the school's annual parents' meeting, when the highlight of the evening was a talk on 'Reading and the Literacy Hour'. For one hour, a full hall listened intently as the art of teaching children to read (phonics 'n' all) was de-mystified, and the parents asking interested, interesting questions designed to enable them to improve their child's home learning.

Which indicates to me the obvious: that parents are the single most important influence on a child's educational attainment. More important than Ofsted, more important than the DfES, and more important than LEAs (to list but three abbreviated regulators).

Labour appears to have cottoned onto this statement-of-the-bleedin', with Ruth Kelly announcing proposals she argues will usher in true "parent power". Sounds great in theory; the actuality is less impressive.

Let's canter through five of the key problems in schools today:

  • The admissions post-code lottery: parents who want to guarantee their children can get into a good school have to pay: either in school fees, or in higher mortgages. It's been calculated a 10% improvement in Key Stage 2 results in primary schools is associated with a 7% increase in house prices.
  • A bloated national curriculum: prescriptive government dictation of what should be taught in our schools undermines teachers' ability to tailor their classes to their children, stifling creativity and professionalism. We need a minimum curriculum agreed by schools, not a national one set by government.
  • Under-achievement: around a quarter of children leave primary school unable to read or write. In the OECD's 2004 comparison of 15 year-olds, Britain was ranked 11th out of 32 countries in science, and 18th in maths. Just 27% of black children achieve 5 A-Cs at GCSE, compared to 47% of whites - a discrepancy which is a function of poverty, rather than race.
  • Disruptive children: not simply the clear-cut, out-of-control head-cases, but the persistent low-level disrupters for whom there are few effective sanctions.
  • Devalued exams: in 1989, the mark needed to achieve a grade C in the higher Oxford and Cambridge GCSE Mathematics paper was 48%; in 2000 it was 18%. In difficult A-level subjects, such as Maths, up to 40% of candidates are awarded an A grade, and many universities are now setting their own admissions tests to filter the brightest.
Big issues, all of them. So what's Ruth Kelly's answer? Well, her insipid education White Paper - Labour's twelfth since 1997 - proposes that new schools can be set up and managed by parents, private schools, universities, businesses, or faith or community groups; that a "schools commissioner" will help parents set up their own schools and to match potential backers with schools; and that existing schools will be allowed to become independent of LEAs. And, er, that's about it.

Not much wrong with any of this, but I can't see it transforming primary or secondary education. Why not? Because the Government refuses to - or dares not - see the logic of its own approach.

If parental involvement is the key to driving improvements in our schools, three ingredients are essential: responsibility, accountability - and purchasing power.

Let's start from first principles. Teachers are responsible for educating children to the best of their professional ability; children are responsible for learning to the best of their ability; and parents are responsible for providing a supportive home background to the best of their ability. The aim must be to create a virtuous circle, connected by parents, in which motivated children hungry to learn are schooled by motivated teachers eager to educate.

But, of course, this utopia will not happen unless there is very clear accountability, with schools, children and parents all equally well aware of their own responsibilities. The accountability of children to their school and children to their parents is pretty clearly understood. What is currently opaque is the accountability of schools and parents to each other.

In theory, this can occur at different levels: informally (through a parents evening, or meeting with the head-teacher); or formally (via the governing body or LEA). In reality, parents have very little say over how their child is educated. This is for two reasons: first, because teachers are themselves so constrained by government in what they can teach, and how; and, secondly, because they have no option but to accept the type of education their local school offers, or else pay to opt out of the state system.

Responsibility and accountability are both pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by the ability of parents to choose an alternative. To imagine - as the Government's White Paper does - that new schools will magically appear in order to provide that alternative is fantasy. The only way in which parents will have real choice is if they are able to shop around for the school they believe will best suit their child's education. The only way in which the market will supply that demand is if parents are in control of purchasing their child's education. This means - yes, you've guessed it! - school vouchers.

Let me be clear. School vouchers are not an end in themselves. They do not offer a quick fix. They would solve many existing problems, but create some new ones. However, let me be equally clear about this: in considering what is best for our children's education, the key decision-makers should be parents. Schools, and by extension the state, operate in loco parentis only.

Vouchers offer the best, and most flexible, method by which parents can be empowered. They would end, at a stroke, the postcode lottery of schools admissions. Schools which are free to set their own curriculums will attract more motivated staff and children. Their pupils will, in turn, disrupt less, learn more, and achieve better exam results. And if the value of the voucher is greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with special needs, schools will have an incentive actively to seek out those whom the education system is currently failing.

For too long, the educational requirements of children, and the role of their parents in choosing their education, have been elbowed aside by politicians desperate to take the credit for rising educational standards. The state should step back. It is time now for real parental power. And that means purchasing power.

October 22, 2005

Of soccer and swearing

Chris Patten muses on the British national identity in his excellent tome, Not Quite the Diplomat:

"My own preferred idea of identity rests heavily on George Orwell's observation that above all we are a gentle people. I fear that this land of revolver-free policeman, polite bus conductors, and those old maids on their bicycles, made famous by John Major, as they peddled through the early mornign mists to Holy Communion, was only part of the picture even when Orwell drew it.

"He also noted our bad teeth, British grime, intemperate boozing and foul language. One of Aden'a last British governors, Sir Richard Turnbull, mourning the end of the British Empire, told Denis Healey that when it finally sunk beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind it two monuments: one was the game of Association Football, the other was the expression 'Fuck off'."

October 20, 2005

The War on Drugs: making a scarecrow of the law

I think the time has come for me to confess all. It’s an embarrassing admission, especially for an elected Liberal Democrat, but no matter: I have never taken any illegal drugs. I’ve never passed the dutchie, shot the breeze, or chased the dragon. I’ve never been bombed, caned, fried, gooned, juiced, potted, skunked, toasted or wracked. A promising future political career lies in tatters…

But not David Cameron’s. He is shooting up (the greasy pole, that is), his non-disclosure disclosure that he has dabbled with narcotics proving no impediment to his meteoric rise without trace. I’m still not sure why. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a politician who aspires to be Prime Minister to ‘fess up to any previous. His private life is his private life; but he was not being asked about illicit-but-legal sexual peccadilloes, simply whether he has knowingly broken the law. Is that really out-of-bounds?

And this is an issue that matters: the law against drugs is an ass, desperately in need of reform. If the next leader of the Tory Party is hamstrung because he’s nervous of provoking his socially-authoritarian colleagues, or the tabloid press, then Her Majesty’s Opposition will continue to limp ineffectively alongside her Government, both of them falling further and further behind public opinion.

The Onion summed it up best: “Drugs Win War On Drugs”. Prohibition of drugs in this country has failed, just as prohibition always fails, everywhere. In the last two decades, the number of heroin addicts has increased by 2,000%. Britain now has 200,000 serious hard-drug users. Almost one-quarter of adults under the age of 40 have used cannabis in the last 12 months.

This is not for lack of effort on the part of HM’s Customs and Excise. Seizures of heroin and cocaine have never been more bountiful, yet its officials accept that – for all the time, money and resources devoted to closing off the supply routes – less than one-tenth of the drugs coming into Britain are prevented from reaching our streets. The proof is in the drugs market: the greater the supply, the lower the price. During the 1990s, the cost of heroin and cocaine fell by about 30%; ecstasy was some 60% cheaper by the end of the decade.

All of which brings to mind the words of Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Politicians have no excuse for their head-in-the-sand approach to the drugs issue. It is over five years since the Police Foundation’s independent ‘Runciman Report’ urged reform, arguing that the current drugs laws are held in contempt by vast swathes of our society. The Report noted the understandable dislike, especially among the young, of the hypocrisy and cant of those who preach the notion that all drugs are equally bad despite clear medical evidence to the contrary.

Almost one in 100 tobacco-users die each year from their habit; one in 200 alcohol-users go the same way. Yet just one in 500,000 ecstasy-users are killed by their drug of choice: they’d be far more at risk riding a motorbike, or travelling on a civil airline.

The legalisation of drugs is the only sane way to avoid making a ‘scarecrow of the law’. We could at least start with the non-opiates - cannabis and ecstasy - neither of which are addictive, and the adverse health risks of which are acknowledged to be small. This incrementalist approach would allow government to test public readiness to accept a mature, reflective drugs policy, one which eschews the schlock-horror tabloid ‘crusades’ to ban this-that-or-the-other evil.

No-one should pretend this is a panacea. Making available substances which can cause harm to the individual is not something to be done with joy in one’s heart, and a spring in one’s step. But harm to the individual is the individual’s responsibility. The role of law-makers is to ensure individuals know the medical risks they are taking by using drugs, and to ensure that the wider public is reasonably protected from any side-effects of that drug use.

And legalisation of drugs promises three big wins:

1. It would save money. Not only would there be an estimated 10% reduction in the prison population – as drug-users would no longer be felons, and drug-pushers would be squeezed out of their lucrative black market – but the huge costs of the state’s risible attempts to enforce the unenforceable could be spent where it matters most: on treatment for drug abusers. In addition, it is thought that excise tax on a legalised drugs trade could yield up to £1 billion revenue annually.

2. A legalised drug is a safer drug. Many of those who die from their intoxication are killed by unsafe, adulterated substances. If the illegal drugs trade were subject to the same quality control as the legal one, fewer people would die. And fewer people would be tempted into trying hard drugs by their cannabis dealer aiming to ratchet up his margin by luring more customers into the higher-profit world of Class As.

3. It would cut crime. This is not just because an illegal activity is to be made legal, but because much drug crime is spurred by the high prices which prohibition allows dealers to charge, forcing addicts to steal to fund their fix.

The war on drugs is the scarecrow on which organised crime is comfortably perched. We need to face up to the simple fact that the problem in society – especially our addict-laden inner cities – is not drug use, but drug abuse. Abuse of drugs by addicts, whose lives crumble to dust; and abuse of addicts by dealers, whose crimes are earning them rich rewards. Let us wrest control of the drug supply from criminals, and ensure that we use that control to combat the damage drug abuse is wreaking in this country.

October 18, 2005

Ken Clarke: ave atque vale

Ken Clarke has been, for me, the real hero of this Tory election campaign, the only candidate to have said anything worth saying, and memorably so.

His final line to the Blackpool conference was one of the most audaciously brilliant punch-lines I've heard in a political speech:

"We search for leaders who will be seen by the public as
prime ministers in waiting. Oh boy, have you kept me waiting."

And now, just as he was hoping to walk down the aisle, he's been jilted. I guess as a Lib Dem I should be grateful the Tories have ungraciously tossed to one side their biggest electoral asset (beaten by Liam Fox and David Davis, for Chrissakes!).

But, as it happens, I'm sorry. Politics has too few stars. The loss of Ken to frontline politics will make for more anodyne debate, especially if the young Master Cameron's bandwagon - pushed by a youth-fetishising media - blandly triumphs. The Tories' loss is our loss.

It's the triumph of hope over experience. And pretty damn classy experience at that.

October 17, 2005

The Tory leadership: great viewing

Okay, I admit it... I'm slightly obsessed by the Tory leadership contest. Back in August, I thought it was dull, didn't care. Now I find it fascinating, albeit in a Big Brother / X-Factor kinda way.

The annoyingly compulsive PoliticalBetting.com is currently running a prediction thread for the 1st round of voting. I've guessed as follows:

David Davis: 64
David Cameron: 53
Ken Clarke: 44
Liam Fox: 37

But I really have no idea; any combination is possible. There's not even an EARS switch analysis to help me out.

Davis is, I'm convinced, a write-off: his campaign collapse has been like watching a political version of the Wall St crash, or the pricking of the dot.com bubble.

I'm surprised Master Cameron has been unable to generate more public supporters among Tory MPs since he became the media's anointed Tory messiah. (Perhaps his campaign is waiting for the second round to generate the 'big mo'?)

But he's surely a shoo-in against any of the others in the members' ballot, except maybe Ken... And I can't help feeling the cuddly ex-chancellor is going to do better than folks think. He usually does.

As for Liam Fox, he's obviously the Lib Dems' dream Tory leader. But it ain't going to happen. Which is probably a good thing for British politics.

Perhaps the most fun has been reading the vitriol, invective and bile generated on ConservativeHome's leadership comments page by Tories fighting like a [insert collective noun here - I can't be arsed looking it up on Wikipedia] of ferrets in a sack. They put internal Lib Dem disagreements to shame. (Thankfully.)

October 15, 2005

Oxford City Council: delivering ‘Value for Money’?

I don’t tend to write much on this site about my work on Oxford City Council’s Finance Scrutiny Committee (which I chair). There’s a simple reason: a lot of it is quite detailed analysis of how well – or not – different parts of the Council’s services are performing, and not easily translated into a 450-word story. So bless the Oxford Mail for deciding that the committee’s investigation of whether the City Council is achieving ‘Value for Money’ is worthy of coverage. They’re right, but it would be easy to dismiss as a bit dull (as I have previously done).

‘Value for Money’ is a vogue term, unsurprisingly perhaps, as it is one of the few bits of Council finance jargon which is pretty easily comprehensible. Most of us are quite accustomed to dealing with ‘Value for Money’ in our day-to-day lives. We are very well aware that, as consumers, we make many trade-offs according to our financial circumstances.

For example, you may prefer Tesco’s ‘Finest’ range of fresh bread; but be happy enough to settle for a loaf of Warburton’s. Or, even if you can afford the ‘Finest’, you may still prefer to stick with the cheaper option, and spend the difference on a packet of Polo mints.

Similarly, the City Council has to make spending decisions based on using its finite resources to achieve the best aggregate result for council tax-payers. But whereas, as consumers, we know well our own preferences, and can justify our spending decisions with reference to our personal priorities, the Council is not in that happy position. Not because Oxford’s political parties don’t know our priorities – they’re in our manifestos – but because we don’t necessarily know what can be afforded.

Overall, Oxford City Council is a high-spending authority delivering poor quality services. That bald statement hides a great deal of variation. Some parts of the Council are doing great work at low cost. But there are parts where performance is patchy, and which cost a hell of a lot compared to other councils. And it is in these parts there needs to be a ‘pincer movement’, cutting costs and driving up performance. Or, alternatively, the Council needs to decide to stop delivering these poor quality services, and focus on delivering those at which it is good.

As you can see, I’m being (deliberately) vague about which services I have in mind. That is not in order to save blushes, but because the City Council has been pretty sloppy in not asking itself these tough questions for far too long – which means councillors, from across the parties, have no empirical evidence on which to base our verdicts.

Which is why the Finance Scrutiny Committee has set itself the challenge of getting answers to these questions.

October 11, 2005

Why the licence fee should go...

Abolition of the BBC licence fee is a debate which sparks up regularly to my never-ceasing delight. Steve Guy has put the argument in favour of its axeing over on his Political Weblog. I did so in August, via the Apollo Project, here. Go seek...

I won't bore readers with another recitation, but there are some points worth emphasising as they seem always to be lost in the horror that greets the proposal that this middle-class subsidy be ended:

  • Public service broadcasting (PSB) is important to enable a civil society to flourish.
  • The BBC is not the sole provider of PSB: ITV and Channel 4 have also been responsible for some of the best ever PSB programmes (Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown, Dispatches, 7 Up, This Week, GBH, Brass Eye, etc, etc.)
  • To equate the BBC with PSB is to do a serious injustice to some of the great independent producers working outside the BBC.
  • PSB is at its best when there is healthy competition between the BBC and its commercial rivals, all of whom can compete on a level playing field.
  • The licence fee is giving the BBC a stranglehold of the PSB market: ITV and Channel 4 cannot afford to compete with the BBC any more.
  • That is because of the licence fee. The abolition of the BBC licence fee is, therefore, essential if we are to protect PSB in the future.
So there you have it: the greatest current threat to good quality TV is not Rupert Murdoch, is not Dick 'n' Dom, is not even Celebrity Bargain Hunt. It's the licence fee.

And, yes, I did call it a 'middle class subsidy'... Sometimes I just live to be provocative.

October 09, 2005

David Cameron: the Tories’ Jack Vettriano?

The Conservative Party, like most other sentient organisms, is a curious paradox. Its very philosophy is designed to appeal to the glass-half-empty brigade, apprehensive that the future is an ambush poised to ensnare any adventurer naïve enough to believe that what lies ahead could possible be better than the familiar path well-trod. As the Tory historian John Charmley has noted: there is a “vein of pessimism which arises on the right from a conviction (religious or secular) of ‘original sin’.”

For all the lip-service the Tories pay to freedom, most would, with a baleful shake of their heads, sign-up to the notion that “Man is born bad, and everywhere deserves to be in shackles” (to distort Rousseau). Yet, when it comes to electing its leader, the Tory story is nearly always the triumph of hope over experience, optimism over pessimism. And, all too frequently, arse over elbow.

A canter through the last hundred years of Tory leaders shows how fast that maxim holds. Of the 14 Conservative chiefs who have climbed the greasy pole in that time, 10 were surprise victors over seemingly superior alternatives:

  • Bonar Law in 1911 (over Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long);
  • Baldwin in 1922 (over Lord Curzon);
  • Churchill in 1940 (over Lord Halifax);
  • MacMillan in 1957 (over RAB Butler);
  • Douglas-Home in 1963 (over RAB, again, and Quintin Hogg);
  • Heath in 1965 (over Reggie Maudling);
  • Thatcher in 1975 (over Willie Whitelaw);
  • Major in 1990 (over Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd);
  • Hague in 1997 (over Ken Clarke);
  • and Duncan Smith in 2001 (over Michael Portillo, and Ken again).

Like a nervous batsman looking for the winning runs, the Tories are quite prepared to pick a leader with an outside edge if they think it will help them nick a victory. Even if it means they run the risk of getting caught out.

Perhaps even more intriguing, is the reputation of the four who assumed leadership comfortably - Balfour (1902), Neville Chamberlain (1937), Eden (1955) and Howard (2003). Stout defences could doubtless be proffered by their respective supporters that they discharged the duties of the office they held as well as could be expected (except for Eden). But it would require a large blind spot genuinely to believe that, if this quartet were emblematic of the Tories, they would have dominated the twentieth-century with such conspicuous electoral success. Better, it seems, to have been tested by fire when winning the leadership, than to appear to be able to walk on water - then sink.

Which brings us, as it was intended to do, to David Cameron. It will be easy for any Tories reading what I am about to write to dismiss it as the politics of mis-direction: that, as a Lib Dem, I am so worried by the putative threat Mr Cameron represents - especially to Lib Dem MPs in the south of England - that I am eager for anyone but "that nice young man" to win. Well, perhaps. There is no doubt that, as even his supporters acknowledge, Mr Cameron would be another Tory gamble on an unknown. He might be brilliant; he might crash and burn. It now seems likely that time will tell. But that is not why I think Tories would be quite, quite wrong to elect him.

Mr Cameron has, of course, got what George H Dubya Bush called "the Big Mo" after his 'look, mum, no notes' speech at Blackpool this week. (This followed on from Sir Malcolm Rifkind's 'look, mum, no votes' turn.) This display impressed, even mesmerised, those who witnessed it, and it would be churlish not to congratulate Mr Cameron on remembering his lines under duress, and delivering them with the pained, angsty sincerity of an adolescent wooing his first love. And yet, and yet…

His performance reminded me (as it did the Tories' advertising guru, Lord Bell) of a Chinese meal: satisfying at the time, but half an hour later you feel empty. For me, its vacuousness was epitomised by this line (which I promise I have not invented): "Let's dream a new generation of Conservative dreams." Initially, I thought I was unfair to zero in on that vapid utterance. Anyone who has engaged in public speaking, especially when taking the risk not to stick to a script, occasionally lapses into ludicrous clichés which, recalled later, induce a cringe. But, no, this was one of the sentences proudly repeated on the Conservative website reporting Mr Cameron's speech. If the Tories really are looking for their Tony Blair - complete with verbless platitudes devoid of meaning - then they may have found their man.

Indeed, it is Mr Cameron's self-conscious aping of Mr Blair which leads me to believe he is the right guy for the Tories, standing at the wrong time.

I voted enthusiastically for Mr Blair in the Labour leadership contest of 1994. He was, indisputably, the right choice to lead the party to a crushing election victory in 1997. His wasted two terms as a landslide Prime Minister also prove how unfit he was for that office when he won it. Only now, eight years later, does he seem comfortable in the role; and that is because he knows he will never again have to face the electorate. How might history have been different - Mr Blair's own personal history, as well as the Labour Party's - if John Smith had lived, and Mr Blair had been able to gain ministerial experience before assuming the mantle of primus inter pares? Instead, the 52 year-old Mr Blair is winding down his premiership just at an age when he would be best placed to assume it.

Too much, too young: a long retirement of regrets to nurse.

The Blackpool conference, Tory spokesmen have been keen to tell us, marked the beginning of the party's road back to government. Maybe it did. Certainly they have re-discovered an appetite for office, which has been lacking for too long in a party that is supposed to provide HM's Opposition. It is less clear that they have a hunger to provide good government. Mr Cameron will, I suspect, help the Tories to achieve power; I am more doubtful that he is equipped to govern. If Mr Blair proved out of his depth in 1997 after 14 years as an MP, seven of them in the shadow cabinet, how much more true will this be of Mr Cameron in 2009, after eight years in Parliament, and four years leading his party?

Yet the Tory Party, throughout its history, has shown itself to be more keen to select the blank canvas over the Old Master, so that their conflicting hopes, aspirations, prejudices and judgements can be projected onto it without any distracting background. The question is this: will Mr Cameron's canvas be that of a Jack Vettriano, an homage to a tired, well-thumbed manual which dates badly?

October 04, 2005

Chiantishire updated

Gem of a quote from Charlemagne in this week's Economist:

"Henry VIII executed his English wives but only divorced his continental ones - so by British standards, he may count as a Europhile."

October 03, 2005

So I'm from Chiantishire. Hmmm...

Well, I couldn't be arsed watching the Beeb's 90-minute 'Test the Nation' style engagement with all matters European.

But I did do the crude online test, with the result that I'm stereotyped as Mr & Mrs Chiantishire:

This group are Euro enthusiasts; they like all things European from going on holiday to sun dried tomatoes and good red wine.

Well, I don't go a bundle on sun-dried tomatoes, and I'm pretty much teetotal. But, after that, I guess I don't mind the broadbrush label too much. At least it keeps me a long way away from Peter Hitchens.