Julian Glover finds the tale of Tory reinvention just a little too up close and personal
This is political history Band of Brothers-style, the feelgood story of a bunch of friends who take over a three-quarters-dead political party and charge, heads down, towards victory. No one seems quite sure in which direction to run, or why, or whether they will get there, only that characterful commanders with staccato first names – suave Dave, brainbox George, far-out Steve and tough bloke Andy – are shouting at the troops and reinventing tactics along the way.
Like all the best war stories, it is exciting, immediate and intermittently grim, and it sags when the battle falters. Peter Snowdon leaves it to others to decide if the conflict he describes was pointless or decisive; he just tries to note down the details of every passing bullet.
As such, Back from the Brink will fascinate a small number of people, many of whom are quoted in its pages, and may prove hard pounding for everyone else. You have to be an enthusiast to want to relive William Hague’s “foreign land” speech or Cameron’s referendum on his Built to Last consultation document. But we should be grateful that someone has set himself the task of writing it all down and has done it well.
Snowdon’s book is among the best of a crop of Tory literature that tries to explain why a party that seemed to have gone the way of the Asquithian Liberals suddenly came alive and biffed Labour on the nose. There are reasons to question his conclusion – that Tory modernisers got the formula right – but he has interviewed everyone involved and digs deep into the anxieties of opposition politics. Few allies and not much money – to start with at least. An electorate whose attitude varies between boredom and hate. And a team dependent on the performance of just one man who had never done anything like it before.
Among the many frustrations of the Tory reinvention is that no one yet knows if it is real, or if Cameron believes in it. Back from the Brink, which comes alive only once the inept Iain Duncan Smith is shunted off the Blackpool conference platform and Michael Howard has had his chance to lose, offers intricate detail about Cameron’s actions as leader. But he is no more successful than anyone else at penetrating his motivation.
At one point the Tory leader-to-be confesses to a modernising friend that he was a late adherent to their cause. “I think you’re right that it took me quite a long time to get here, but let’s hope that, like slow cooking, the result in the eating will be much better, stronger and more convincing.” Then, just weeks later, he is leading a 10-week “shock therapy” to jolt Conservatism out of its malaise. Slow food to fast food in one quick step, with no time for thought on the way. It is never clear whether Cameron wants to change his party to win, or because he thought it was wrong before.
Snowdon offers all sorts of detail about what was done, but rarely considers why, except to agree with the modernisers’ justified belief that the only way a loathed party could win again was to look as different as possible from before. This does not exclude the possibility that underneath the branding the Conservative party has chugged along more or less untouched, its basic approach to class, property and power the same as ever. If, despite Gordon Brown’s obvious unpopularity, the modernised Conservatives fail to win properly this time, they should ask themselves whether it is because they changed too much, or not at all.
Like the party it describes, this account benefits from the fact that most of those involved in the Tory project are intelligent, likeable and enthusiastic. This is not the history of a movement at the end of its time, a cabinet of horrors, but of youngish people with more of a future than a past. That cheerful undertone strengthens an analysis which argues that what these young people did was right. Snowdon is no sceptic but an ardent enthusiast for the project.
Yet he is honest about some of its weaknesses, above all a startling short-termism and lack of constructive planning. At times everything seems to be kept in Steve Hilton’s head. Cameron is the front man, but it is not always clear if he knows what he is fronting, only that he is good at doing it.
The downside of a book built on access is that it is hard to step back. Snowdon’s descriptions of Michael Ashcroft’s role only increase suspicion about his influence, but this book’s principal concern is that Ashcroft was not integrated enough into Central Office. Snowdon does not ask if he should have been there in the first place.
Cameron’s speeches are also treated kindly, especially the 2009 autumn conference address that misjudged the tone of his language about the state. Prototype modernisers – Hague and Howard – are attacked for retreating from change, but Cameron is not sufficiently criticised for appearing to do the same after the economic crash. This book has more to say about 2005 and 2006 than about now, though the circumstances of Cameron’s election seem very distant.
If Cameron fails his test this spring, Snowdon’s book will be held up by traditional Tories as a record of all that was ghastly about the experiment. If, as is more likely, he wins, it will be a definitive account of how he did it.