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?