On Mingness and Cameronality

Thursday, June 8th, 2006

So Ming scored a direct hit at PMQs today, then. He must have done, because everyone's saying he did.

And that rather highlights the problem with this leadership business. Ming's success today was partly because he left Tony Blair gasping like a newly-landed haddock, and partly because people were prepared to report that he did.

It's no coincidence that the subject he stitched Blair up on was rendition flights – part of the whole US-UK-Iraq screw-up that helped him make his name as an effective and respected Parliamentarian. If he'd caught Blair napping on, say, education his success would have formed part of the ongoing “is he any good as leader” narrative that's dominated since he took over. Because it was actually in an area he'd previously been praised for it allowed even hostile writers like Iain Dale, who wears his bitterness over his North Norfolk humiliation vividly in every well-crafted sentence he constructs, to dust off the old “Ming scores another hit on Iraq” narrative.

But it's not just Ming whose leadership is defined as much by how it's reported as by what he actually does – the same is true of David Cameron, who has so far managed to create the illusion of great success by ensuring that the very little he's actually done is reported as if he'd been handing out loaves, fishes and triple Club Card points to allcomers.

In fact, it's probably true to say that the only negative currently associated with an otherwise buoyant Liberal Democrat party is the perceived problems surrounding the leadership, while the only positive associated with a Tory Party that hasn't fundamentally changed since the fall of Thatcher is the buzz that's attached to Cameron.

In other words, if Ming scores a few more hits like today and establishes himself more solidly, then we'll be off into the distance faster than Julia Goldsworthy in a velodrome whereas, if David Cameron steered his famous bicycle under the wheels of the chauffeur-driven car that infamously follows it, the whole Tory Party would soon follow him into oblivion.

That's why the stakes are so high in the Bromley by-election – the Conservatives may live to regret their questionable decision to field a non-local, pro-Europe candidate in a constituency where the Lib Dems can attack hard and where one of the leading lights in the UK Independence Party makes his home. The late Eric Forth finished almost 30 points ahead of the chasing pack in last year's general election, with 51 per cent of the vote. If the Liberal Democrats and UKIP each manage to shave 10 points off that lead then Cameron will look somewhat tarnished – any more and he'll have some serious explaining to do.

But it won't be the end of him – far from it. There are so many people who want him to succeed that he will be able to survive not only minor blunders but also one or two thumping great ones. A whole swathe of the political and commentating classes want to see a credible Conservative Party and they'll keep Cameron propped up even if he shows signs of falling over – no matter what they think of him personally.

Because the truth about Cameron – one of the truths, anyway – is that many of his party like what he's doing to their poll ratings and are willing him to succeed but aren't entirely convinced by the man himself. Rather as Labour's Old Left put up with Blair in order to get into power, a significant proportion of the Tory Party are perfectly happy to go along for the ride without necessarily signing up to the driver's planned route to the destination. It would be misleading to suggest there's any serious resistance to his agenda at this stage, but there's certainly a lot of eagle eyes watching him even as they support him. They well remember how Labour's left ended up as an irrelevance and don't fancy history repeating itself.

Cameron's task in keeping them happy while simultaneously suggesting to the public that he's not listening to them has often been compared with walking a tightrope, possibly – if the writer is particularly excitable – one stretched over a tank of piranhas. It's not actually like that at all. It's worse.

Instead, he's like the bloke who takes the food into the lion cage.

So long as he keeps bringing them what they want – success, dead goats – they're more than happy to welcome him. There may be something slightly odd about the way he smells, something less than ideal about what he brings – surely a live goat, or deep blue water Conservatism, would be preferable – and their instincts might be screaming out to rip him to shreds, but when all is said and done a dead goat or a poll lead is not something to be sniffed at.

But, like the lion feeder, Cameron will run into trouble if he starts turning up empty-handed. They'll let him do it for a while without harming him – at the risk of flogging a dead goat with this metaphor, the possibility of future food from a proven provider is better than the certainty of none from a bloody heap on the floor. However, he must know that if he doesn't keep delivering then pretty soon the likes of the Tory traditionalists and the Murdoch press will be eyeing him hungrily. And even with them on his side, his success is based largely on his personality at the moment – he's more likeable than Labour, and that's all he needs at the moment. Actual policies could damage that and he's wise not to develop any and concentrate on general positioning instead.

Non-Labour politics, it seems to me, is currently being driven by two leadership narratives – the Tories being boosted by Cameron's positive one, the Lib Dems being held back by Campbell's negative one. It will be far, far harder for Campbell to reverse his than it will be for Cameron to maintain his, although today suggested Ming might yet manage it. But Britain's celebrity-obsessed, build-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down, culture could see Cameron's bubble burst at any moment.

And if I were a Conservative, that would scare me very much indeed.

Tomorrow, after Ming Campbell makes his big speech about his vision of the party's future, I'll be interviewing him for this blog. I may put these points to him and see what he has to say. Or I may just ask where he buys his ties and who he thinks will win Big Brother, for I am a naturally shallow person and can only keep up this analytical stuff for so long…

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.