Thursday, 6 December 2007

Progress and Policy Exchange trade blows on David Cameron's leadership

Last night, St. Thomas’ Hospital played host to an eagerly anticipated debate organised jointly by the left and right think-tanks Progress and Policy Exchange, with the motion “Has David Cameron Changed the Conservative Party for Good?” On the panel, Policy Exchange co-founder Michael Gove and Fraser Nelson (political editor of the Spectator) to put the case for the motion, while Immigration Minister Liam Byrne partnered Times columnist David Aaronovitch in opposing.

While the debate provided more than a few sparks for gathered politico crowd, I couldn’t help but feel that too great a focus was placed on the recent strong Conservative showings in opinion polls (not that I object to this renewed popularity, mind you) and that this represented a far greater opportunity than was taken to highlight the growing list of policies emanating from CCHQ. While Michael Gove briefly mentioned the party’s recently published Green Paper on Education, this seemed an all-too brief interlude to an ongoing discussion on the reliability of polls. Am I the only one (clearly not, given the outcome of the debate) to believe that the Conservative party’s journey since Blackpool 2005 has been so much more formative than a simple change in public opinion - albeit one bolstered by Labour’s shambolic performance over the past year?

Quite simply, under David Cameron there has been a change in the outlook of Conservative thinking, which has both preceded and influenced the development of party policy. This process is evident in the a new sense of priority in supporting the public services (especially the NHS), a renewed vigour in foreign policy, and a new responsible attitude towards the environment. Of course, these positions supplement not substitute the existing Conservative outlook on a low tax/small state, typified by policies unveiled at October’s conference to increase the threshold inheritance tax to £1 million, and the abolition of stamp-duty for first-time buyers for properties over £250,000. As one Labour party friend of mine said following these announcements: “It’s enough to make you turn Tory”.

As Michael Gove illustrated, David Cameron has had a transformational effect on the Conservative party, whereas Gordon Brown has given no assurance at all that his stewardship is anything more than a transitional one, before a younger leader emerges with the ideas to drive his party forward to government.

Personally, I felt that this could have been a good opportunity to re-layer Conservative policies before an audience of people in a position to test the practical strength of such proposals. Still, the straw poll taken at the end as to whether anyone had changed their mind since the beginning of the debate (one person out of a crowd of around a hundred) possibly indicating the level of surety in the opinions of professional politicos could possibly explain the superficial nature of the debate.

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