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October 23, 2005 - A Week in Politics

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Our Man in London is Mike McCahill. Note: Mike McCahill was born in Warwickshire, England in 1978. He currently works as a film critic for The Scotsman, The Sunday Telegraph and the BBC, while trying to string together novels, screenplays and travel guides for places he's never actually been to. Mike divides his time between the Midlands and London, where professional duty requires he spend at least the first part of every week sitting in small dark rooms. With a couple of exceptions, he is open to offers.

They say a week in politics is a long time, and there's been no more prominent a recent example of this than the last seven days.


A week ago, David Cameron, the youngest candidate in the Conservative leadership race, was on the BBC's open forum Question Time, frantically restating his right not to have to answer the media's equally persistent queries on the subject of whether he had, at any time, used drugs. Today, two ballots later, Cameron is on the brink of victory in that same leadership race, with only the Tory grass-roots support - and chief rival David Davis - standing between him and the seat recently vacated by Michael Howard.


It has been a fevered seven days of leading questions, guarded responses, and tactical voting. The Conservative Party has received more media attention in that week than it has at any time in recent memory, not least as the leadership contest is regarded as the only election a Conservative is likely to win these days. That's a sad state of affairs for any opposition figure to have to deal with, and representative of how New Labour has, for better and worse, come to dominate modern British politics. Having dominated Parliament under Margaret Thatcher throughout the 1980s, the Tories have never before seemed more like guests in the House of Commons, there simply to make up the numbers.


All of which makes the emergence of Cameron an episode rich with potential significance. Why, then, have the British press dwelled on matters of such trivia concerning the candidate himself? It began, last week, with a live ITN News interview, direct from Cameron's Notting Hill kitchen, in which, after inviting Cameron to lay out his vision for the Conservative Party, the interviewer concluded their chat by wondering if the MP had ever smoked dope at university. Cameron shrugged it off: this, he stated, was the type of question any politician worth their salt would never deem worthy of an answer.


The story followed the candidate around for the next few days, like stale marijuana smoke on a tie-dyed T-shirt. Had, in fact, Cameron - known for wearing braces and smoking cigars, as with many a successful London type before him - ever, as successful London types are apparently wont to do, taken cocaine? His rivals David Davis (whose team were rumoured to be the source of some allegations) and Kenneth Clarke weren't being much help, answering straight out the questions Cameron was being forced to duck and dodge.


There were bigger issues at stake during this interrogation. Cameron was actually arguing the case, whether intentionally or not, for the rights of politicians to live normal lives (which may, yes, include some element of recreational drug use) before they become politicians; that whatever took place in his past was markedly less important than his future plans for his party and for the country.


His critics took a different line: that it was vital for the press to be asking such questions of a man preparing to assume a position of this responsibility. One of Cameron's fellow panellists on that edition of Question Time last Thursday argued that the hounding qualities of the British media were only to be applauded. In no other country, she claimed, would corruption - or the potential for corruption - be sniffed out at such an early stage. Cameron wore an expression that suggested he agreed with the sentiment, if not quite with the context.


And eventually, the real story broke. One of Cameron's closest relatives had, it seems, been treated at a clinic for drug addiction, and the candidate had simply been hoping to avoid discussing such personal, not to mention painful, matters in the run-up to the leadership election. The story went away after that, as Tory MPs began voting - first on Tuesday, when Clarke was eliminated from the race; then again yesterday (Thursday), when outside hope Liam Fox was ruled out. Cameron and Davis now go through the final ballot, counting up the votes of the notoriously (indeed, professionally) traditional Conservative Party members. The final result should be revealed on December 6.


At this point, I should reveal my hand, and suggest that I really do hope Cameron beats the stolid and entirely uncharismatic Davis. The fact a Conservative MP has generated sympathy over these seven days from someone who plans never, in his lifetime, to vote Conservative is reason enough for Cameron to win, but heaven alone knows Britain needs a fully-functioning opposition at the moment, and a young(er) face as Leader of the Opposition might just be good for us all.


As the evasions and denials of this last week have demonstrated, Cameron isn't perfect. He is, very much, a politician, after all, and one styled (or restyled) just a little too much after Tony Blair for my liking: a young family man, overly reliant on pseudo-sincere hand gestures, with a Blairite turn of phrase and a not dissimilar interest in modernising politics. But, if nothing else, electing Cameron as Tory leader would set a mirror across the floor of the Commons, and the House might start to take on an intriguing symmetry, rather than its current state of political imbalance.


For a moment, the usually staid and unexciting world of British politics has become like one of those straight-to-video sci-fi movies, where Jean-Claude Van Damme or someone like that plays good and bad twins: the only person who might successfully take on a figure like Blair is, you think, a Blair clone, one who knows exactly how the enemy thinks, acts and feels.



Mike McCahill

October 21, 2005




Copyright 2005 – Mike McCahill

Email the author at mikemccahill@fastmail.fm






Editor's Note: British spelling and punctuation retained here.


Also see this:


Crack Party
In Britain, Tories get a taste of what lies ahead for conservatism...
Bruce Reed -
Friday, Oct. 21, 2005, 9:59 AM PT - SLATE.COM


Bruce Reed was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is president of the Democratic Leadership Council and editor-in-chief of Blueprint magazine.


Any time Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feel down on their luck, they should take solace in the plight of British Tories. Under Maggie Thatcher in the 1980s, Tories were on top of the world, dominating a weak, feckless Labour Party. Once Tony Blair modernized Labour, British conservatism collapsed and has scarcely been heard from since. A succession of Tory leaders have led the party to humiliation and defeat. In this past election, Blair cruised to victory even though his own party was up in arms about Iraq.


While Britain is not America, that morality tale holds lessons for both American parties. In a sense, Republicans and Democrats alike are always on the brink of elimination, if the opposing party can find and sustain a course that corrects its weaknesses so it can show off its strengths. As with any enterprise in a competitive environment, a party must modernize - or it will wither and die.


There's much more there.





Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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