Melanie Phillips

5 March 2013

Would you buy a used manifesto promise from this lot?

Published in: Daily Mail

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Jutting out his chin after a humiliating defeat in the Eastleigh by-election, David Cameron declared yesterday that ‘there will be no U-turns’ and no ‘lurching to the Right’ (but not, alas, ‘no cliches’).

Yet in the very next breath he linked himself to right-wing policies such as controlling immigration, capping welfare payments and ‘asserting Britain’s interests in Europe’, alongside more liberal causes such as protecting NHS spending and improving education for poor children.

Claiming this was the ‘common ground’ of British politics, he then doffed his cap to the late Sir Keith Joseph, whom he credited with coining the term. Yet Sir Keith was the key ideologue of the extremely right-wing creed of Thatcherism.

Mr Cameron — who formerly styled himself, let us not forget, the ‘heir to Tony Blair’ — now says he occupies the ‘common ground’ of this Thatcherite guru.

Oh really? But when the Cameroons set out to ‘detoxify’ the Tory Party in order to gain power, they decided the common ground was on the Left: the relief of poverty, international aid and saving the planet by putting windmills on their roofs.

Now, however, the common ground is apparently being anti-immigration and anti the EU. What a marvellously flexible territory this common ground is! Mr Cameron’s position reminds one irresistibly of the words attributed to General Foch in World War I: ‘Hard pressed on my right; my left is in retreat. My centre is yielding. Situation excellent. I am attacking!’

Such simultaneous lurching (to coin a phrase) from one wing to the other doesn’t inspire much confidence that there’s any substance behind such promises — or indeed, whether there’s any coherent thought there at all.

Yesterday, for example, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced with a loud fanfare that a future Tory Government would repeal the Human Rights Act. But this would do little to remedy the legal paralysis caused by human rights law, since Britain would remain signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, and thus still be in hock to the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights.

Lo and behold, in another newspaper on the very same day the Home Secretary Theresa May was said to be promising that the UK would leave the Convention itself.

So which of these initiatives was the Government proposing? How come one minister was briefing on one policy while a second was briefing on a quite different one?

Leaving the Convention itself would truly be an amazing step, not least because it would have to be taken over the dead body of the Attorney-General, who would interpose his person between the Prime Minister and such a move. But scroll down to the small print and you find that this is merely Mrs May’s own ‘bold proposal’, reportedly backed by Mr Cameron, to make this a Tory manifesto promise in two years’ time.

Well, we all know what happens to Mr Cameron’s manifesto promises. Remember the referendum on the EU constitution? That was a manifesto promise, too — until Mr Cameron told us the circumstances had changed, so the fact that he didn’t keep the promise didn’t mean he had broken it.

And then there was the promise of an in/out referendum on EU membership — until the small print of that one revealed it would happen only after the next election in 2015, and then only if there was a renegotiated European settlement to put to the British people. Talk about jam tomorrow!

Meanwhile, with yet another roll of drums yesterday, the Government briefed that the Prime Minister was preparing to limit the access of immigrants to free health care to stop the NHS from being turned into a ‘global health service’ (and to help stop the threatened tide of Romanians and Bulgarians from flowing into Britain next year).

Once again, this was a meaningless sop to public concern. For the Prime Minister knows perfectly well that any such policy would almost certainly be stopped by the courts ruling that human rights law forbids such ‘discrimination’ against immigrants. The only way to stop the threatened influx would be to change the terms of Britain’s EU membership. But that is not going to happen, because the rest of the EU will not allow it.

Once again, therefore, Mr Cameron’s promise is vacuous unless he tackles head-on the core problem — in this case, Britain’s EU membership itself.

So this is all what might be called politics on the never-never. Would you buy a used manifesto promise from these people? It amounts to little more than the Cameroons spraying around right-wing promises in a panicky attempt to regain their footing after the Eastleigh result.

Of course, one ought not to be too scornful because the alternative — Ed Miliband’s Labour Party — is worse. But how else can you feel when ministers are behaving like headless chickens?

Certainly, some things they are doing, such as the titanic struggles to reform welfare and education, are indeed ‘common ground’ issues with mass public approval. But these are exceptions to the general trend.

What is so amazing is the Government’s enormous reluctance to pursue certain genuine conservative policies, such as restricting immigration or coming out of the EU, while falling over itself to construct useless wind farms, meddle with the laws on the Royal succession and enact gay marriage in a great hurry.

The reason UKIP has stormed ahead to become such a threat to the Tories is simply because it is seen as embodying truly conservative attitudes, in contrast to Mr Cameron’s Not The Conservative Party.

The Tories should think again if they are banking on UKIP’s success last week being a protest vote that will return to them in the general election. Some of it will; and some of UKIP’s policies, such as its unsustainable spending promises, are ill thought through.

But the unhappy fact for Cameron is that his government is not trusted to do anything it may say. Its credibility is shot. And it is hard to exaggerate the fury and despair among Conservative voters that the party has abandoned conservative attitudes.

Mr Cameron is thought to be the captive of the Lib Dems. But this is surely in the main a convenient fig leaf to cover his liberal views.

Some are urging him to do a deal with UKIP. This will never happen — because when Mr Cameron infamously called them ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’, he meant it. He thus also inescapably insulted his own core Conservative voters who share UKIP’s views — views from which he has attempted to dissociate his party.

As Lord Tebbit so aptly observed, if a party leader kicks his own supporters often enough they will kick back. Mr Cameron does not have to enter an alliance with UKIP in order to reconnect to Conservative voters. All he has to do — revolutionary thought! — is adopt Conservative policies himself.

Since the fall of Mrs Thatcher, British Conservatism has lost its way. Mr Cameron wrote yesterday: ‘It’s not about being left-wing or right-wing; it’s about being where the British people are.’

Well, the British people want to get back from the EU the power to govern themselves. They want to live in a country that does not resemble an international transit camp, but where citizenship is based on a truly common culture. They want to end ruinous and pointless green taxes, and to conserve the countryside against urban sprawl. They want armed forces that can actually defend the country and a drastic curtailment of international aid. And they want solid, unambiguous support for traditional family life.

That’s where the British people really are, Prime Minister. The problem is that you are somewhere else.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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Contact Melanie