Yes, I know, we really shouldn’t begrudge Julie Kirkbride that £1040 claimed for professional photoshoots. After all, the rules allow for public support for MPs’ websites, and it is entirely understandable that Julie would want to make her website as attractive as possible. Since she is one of the most photogenic MPs – there are quite a few who you would pay good money to keep away from a camera – her eagerness to be recorded in living colour seems reasonable to me. At the very least, bearing in mind that the Kirkbride family seem to have been living like a posh version of the Gallaghers from Shameless, it’s surely one of her lesser transgressions.
By the way, I love the way Julie, seemingly unable to grasp her constituents’ ire, is whining that she has been forced out by “my political opponents in the Respect party.” Nice work, Mark.
The important thing, though, about Julie’s failure to survive – well, apart from the invaluable nature of the grassroots campaign in Bromsgrove – is that this went against Cameron’s plan. Allow me to explain.
I’ve been making a bit of a study of Rankin’ Dave Cameron, and there are certain things that fascinate me about the Cameron phenomenon. One is that he’s one of that layer of politicians who consistently and mysteriously get a much better press than they deserve. For one thing, it’s become conventional wisdom that he’s done much better than Brown out of the expenses scandal, because he’s been emoting in front of the public and showing understanding of their anger. Personally, when I see Dave pulling his “angry face” and telling us how incredibly angry he is, I’m reminded of nothing so much as David Brent pretending to empathise with his staff. But then, he is a PR man by profession, and PR men are notorious for this kind of thing. At least Mr Tony was a brilliant snake oil salesman – a transparent snake oil salesman is just unintentionally funny.
There are two aspects, I think, to Rankin’ Dave’s good press. One is, quite simply, that he’s coming down with media contacts, and makes big efforts to cultivate the media. Those leaders who don’t – John Major springs to mind – tend to get an appreciably worse press. The other, which explains why the BBC and the Grauniad are so keen on him, is political. That is, that the leader of the Conservative Party is not a conservative. He and his camarilla – Osborne, Vaizey, Gove et al – are basically liberals. Or, to be more precise, he’s a paid-up member of the post-ideological political class. He openly admires Mr Tony, and casts himself as the brave moderniser battling the forces of conservatism. Which is to say, most of his traditional base. Sound familiar?
So this is essentially how young Mr Cameron, whose main experience of government is having acted as an advisor to Norman Lamont at the time of Black Wednesday, got to be leader of the Tory party. The media puffed him up relentlessly, while disparaging his opponent, the experienced and substantial David Davis. It’s true that Davis displayed a lack of media nous, including this stunt:
which is something even I would balk at. Nonetheless, what counted against Davis is that he’s genuinely principled, and genuinely conservative. In this world of post-ideology, he just isn’t salonfähig for the political-media caste.
Whereas Rankin’ Dave certainly is. As a result, he’s got away with all sorts of daft proposals that would ordinarily have been laughed out of court. There was, of course, his outspoken support for Kartvelian irredentism during last year’s South Ossetia war, although thankfully he wasn’t in a position to do anything about it. There is his harebrained lash-up with the Unionist Party, which he will rue before long. And then there was his bright idea that, if you aren’t a member of the Tory party, you’ve never had any connection with the Tory party, that makes you the ideal candidate to be a Tory MP. Not only that, but celebrity candidates would be especially welcome. My erstwhile comrade Peter Hitchens takes up the story:
David Cameron’s weird appeal to non-political people to join the Tory candidates list is one of those media stories that doesn’t pass the ‘Try it the other way round’ test. This test is very easy to apply. Imagine what would happen if the other lot said the same thing. If Gordon Brown came up with anything so bottomlessly stupid, everyone would say so, and there would be pictures of the Prime Minister running his bitten nails through his greying hair with a look of doom on his ravaged face.
He would be accused of trying to hide behind the glamour or prestige of people like Joanna Lumley (a name which came up during David Cameron’s softball conversation, you can hardly call it an interview, with Andrew Marr on Sunday). He would be accused of desperation, of diluting his party. Labour candidates would be found to protest against the threat the idea posed to long-standing hard-working people etc etc, who had fought their way to nomination.
And quite right too. The idea is patently an unworkable publicity stunt.
You said it, Peter. That’s the sort of scheme just begging to be torn to pieces. Even if he put Lucy Pinder on the candidates’ list, I would still think it was a monumentally stupid idea. Likewise his call for open primaries, which is just a way of covering up the mainstream parties’ collapsing membership. Yet somehow, Dave gets away with this flapdoodle week on week.
And this is where the expenses scandal comes in. Brown has been pilloried for being slower off the mark than Cameron, and while there’s some truth in that, it’s also the case that New Labour has been setting up some kind of procedure for dealing with errant MPs, while the Tory leadership has been unofficially twisting arms and demanding retirements. What’s true in both cases, though, is that this has provided both leaders with a heaven-sent opportunity for score-settling. While I am no fan of Hazel Blears, and would be very glad to see her departure from public life, it’s absolutely correct that she has done nothing substantially different from, say, Buff Hoon or the boy Purnell. What’s different is that factional politics in the Labour Party have come into play.
This is much more blatant in the case of the Useless Tories. One notices that Gove and Vaizey, to name but two, have suddenly become invisible men. Meanwhile, the forced retirements have been of older – and significantly more conservative – members of the parliamentary party, people who never liked Cameron and who he dislikes in turn. This scandal therefore becomes another stage in the de-conservatisation of the Conservative Party. Which explains the encouragement Dave has been getting from his media fan club.
On the other side, the fate of Julie Kirkbride demonstrates the unpredicability of real politics. It has become clear that the resignation of Cameron advisor, and Julie’s other half, Andrew MacKay was part of a deal whereby Julie would be protected. This would work out well on both levels. Since the parliamentary Conservative party contains only four women under 50, three if you discount Julie, she was an important part of the optics of modernisation. It was only her own rapacity and the bolshiness of the good folk of Bromsgrove that got in the way.
Which at least gives us some cause for hope, that the real may at times upset the simulacrum. Indeed, holding onto the Real and denying the Simulacrum is the essential point for any human-centred politics. Baudrillard got plenty of things wrong, but he was dead right about that, and we could use him around today.