“Heir to Blair” Cameron seeks progressive mantle

April 9, 2010

RTR2CL0L_Comp[1]David Cameron caused consternation among many Conservative supporters in 2005 by claiming that he was the “heir to Blair”. He learnt his lesson and has steered clear of that comparison ever since, although as this election campaign unfolds there are signs he remains rather more “Blairite” than many in the Conservative rank and file would like.

Survey after survey of Conservative candidates for parliament show that Margaret Thatcher is their number one political hero by a long margin. But when Cameron was asked on the Today programme to name the best British prime minister of the 20th century, he didn’t hesitate for a moment before saying it was Winston Churchill. An uncontroversial choice perhaps, as millions of Britons would probably also single out the wartime leader, but there will have been loyal Conservatives out there disappointed that Cameron did not pick their heroine.

Cameron has always trod a fine line when it comes to Thatcher, a figure who continues to polarise public opinion like no other, 20 years after her downfall. He never loses an opportunity to repeat his mantra that “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state” — a direct reference to her much-quoted assertion that “there is no such thing as society”. It’s a carefully calibrated comment from Cameron, signalling to centrist voters that he is a totally different proposition from Thatcher, while reassuring traditional Tories that he shares her commitment to “rolling back the frontiers of the state”.

What will those traditional Tories have made, meanwhile, of Cameron’s column in today’s Guardian, a newspaper they scorn as a symbol of the New Labour-loving “chattering classes” they so abbhor? Cameron used the column to argue that in a “strange reversal”, Labour under Gordon Brown’s leadership was now a reactionary force while his Conservatives were the new radicals. Will lifelong Tories have bristled at the suggestion that before he came along to lead them into the bright new world of Compassionate Conservatism, they were reactionaries?

It’s not hard to see what Cameron is doing. His party suffered three successive election defeats at the hands of Tony Blair, and he wants to reclaim the political centre-ground that was held for so long by the architect of New Labour. He wants to seize the mantle of progressive politics and appeal to voters beyond the Conservative heartland. “To Guardian readers everywhere, I say: overcome any prejudices you may have. We want to change our country, and we want to do it with your help,” he wrote.

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