May 15, 2005


The Tories’ Blair and Brown (James Cusick, 5/15/05, Sunday Herald)

Standing at the very back of the main hall during Labour’s watershed annual party conference in 1994 was a quiet observer from Tory Central Office. His job wasn’t to applaud what he had just heard from the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, Tony Blair. His job was to listen, learn and report to his party headquarters in London about the mood of this re-energised so-called New Labour.

The young observer was George Osborne, promoted last week to the post of shadow Chancellor of the Conservative Party. At 33, Osborne is being tipped as a serious contender in the struggle for the Tory leadership going on behind closed doors even before Michael Howard officially declares his departure. [...]

What Osborne observed in Blackpool was an event symbolic to Labour’s reinvention as a party capable of government. Blair told an almost shocked conference they had to dump part of their legacy – Clause Four – “and look to the future”, rather than back.

Until Blair, the Labour Party had looked marginalised for a generation. Neil Kinnock had started the journey back using side roads. Blair seemed to accelerate it on fast-track motorways. Osborne has told many friends he had been blown away by the performance of Blair and the Prime Minister has remained one of his political heroes, much in the same way the young Blair is said to have been consistently impressed by Margaret Thatcher.

Osborne will need to remember every detail of that Blackpool conference speech: Blair’s determination, his defiance of his own party, and crucially his evident desire to take his party out of the wilderness of opposition. His promotion to the job of shadow Chancellor has put him in the unenviable firing line of having to counter the power and authority of Gordon Brown. In the words of one Tory MP, who does not have much time for the rising stars of either Osborne or Cameron: “Let’s see how George copes with the reality check of Gordon Brown. Delightful and articulate and telegenic or whatever the attributes are supposed to be – well, they won’t be enough. George has been thrown into a bear pit and now we’ll see how much fight is needed to survive, let alone win.”

This kind of venomous in-house backlash is not unusual in the Tory ranks. The fast-track careers of Osborne and Cameron – at the head of the so-called youthful Notting Hill set of modernising Tories – means others of a more traditional stature are having to stand and watch a group of young, often smug, MPs tell them how it’s done. And they don’t like it.

The Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris offers a flavour of this. Cameron and Osborne, he said, were “the sort of Tories you would be happy for your daughter to invite for the weekend: young, moderate, rather metro-politan. Nicely presented and entirely sane.”

Parris said the duo – who have been compared to the younger Blair and Brown – were smooth rather than inflammatory, “the Classic FM of politics”. Others have noted Osborne and Cameron adore the word “mainstream” and indulge themselves in the vocabulary that has come to dominate many of Blair’s recent speeches. “Common ground” is said to be favourite. Parris concludes: “They are, in short, delightful and clever young men. And they talk a load of balls.”

A former Tory MP, who asked not to be named “because we can’t afford any criticism these days”, suggested: “Osborne and Cameron are seen as redeemers. And they might need to be. Blair and Brown invented New Labour. Osborne and Cameron may have to invent the New Conservatives. The problem is nobody has yet decided what this new, improved, updated thing is going to be.”

The New Conservatives need to be Old Thatcherism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 15, 2005 10:34 AM
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