David Cameron saved his party from fusty white male irrelevance
Published by The Daily Telegraph (14th July, 2016)
We saw the classic David Cameron in his last Prime Minister’s Questions: warm and witty, with sharp defence of his record leavened by flashes of self-deprecation. Underlying jibes against Jeremy Corbyn and jokes with colleagues was a clear love of politics, combined with an old-fashioned sense of public service that defined his time in office. Toxic divisions plaguing his party and his nation over Brexit were temporarily forgotten, friends and foes on both sides joining in the jollility.
As Mr Cameron said rather poignantly after impassioned defence of his unpopular profession, he was the future once. How long ago it seems when in 2005 a youthful new Tory leader stood up nervously in the House of Commons and told Tony Blair: ‘I want to talk about the future. He was the future once.’ My one-time boss seems remarkably unchanged, despite the scars of six years in Downing Street and abrupt style of his unwanted exit. Yet how different the party bequeathed to his successor.
Given Labour’s current meltdown, it seems incredible to recall how he took over a party disheartened after its third defeat by Tony Blair. He was the fourth Conservative leader in as many years, and his party looked jaded and outmoded. One thing I liked when I met Mr Cameron was how he seemed comfortable in his skin and in his country, devoid of hang-ups about gender, race and sexuality that dogged many Tories. This challenge was the core of his modernisation project.
Three years earlier, a new party chairwoman called Theresa May told members that they failed to reflect a rapidly changing nation in her superb ‘nasty party’ speech to the annual conference. She said it was ‘a travesty’ that of 38 new Tory MPs elected in 2001, only one was a woman and none from an ethnic minority. ‘Is it a party at ease with 21st-century Britain?’ she asked. When Mr Cameron took over, he inherited just 17 women in the Commons and two MPs from ethnic minorities. Little wonder they struggled to win elections.
Now look at those people cheering Mr Cameron in his farewell to parliament. Note the pink and purple jackets breaking up the grey suits. One of his finest achievements has been to transform a party that was pale, male and very stale into something much more representative of modern Britain. And this has given Mrs May the bedrock that allows her to promote so many talented women into top jobs; she is, after all, not a person with time for tokenism.
Harriett Baldwin, one of those tipped for promotion, pointed out after PMQs that Mr Cameron quadrupled the number of women MPs during his tenure. Today 68 – more than one in five – are female. This is still far too few, but it marks a substantial step forward. There are also 17 black and ethnic minority Tories. And now 13 say they are gay or lesbian after international development secretary Justine Greening came out last month. Just two call themselves disabled, which is perhaps one reason why this minority fares so badly in Britain.
Mr Cameron deserves credit for this transformation, often made in the teeth of silly attacks about ‘political correctness’. For the reshaping is driven by urgent political necessity – and not just in the inner cities. In the true blue Surrey suburb where I grew up, there are now at least 30 languages spoken, migrant children make up more than one in seven pupils in some schools and a mosque has opened to minimal fuss.
The now former PM was aided by much-maligned constituency parties. Lord Feldman, the departing party chairman, gave a presentation to a recent political cabinet showing a higher proportion of female and ethnic minority candidates selected for seats in last year’s election than were on candidate lists. This shows willingness to change – and often in places some might consider unlikely such as Richmond, North Yorkshire, which picked Rishi Sunak to succeed William Hague for one of the safest Tory seats.
‘It used to look like a sea of grumpy white men from the shires when you sat looking out from the Tory conference platform,’ one senior source told me. ‘Now it looks like Britain.’ Not quite. There remains some way to go on this journey. Yet Mr Cameron saved his party from fading into fusty irrelevance. Now Mrs May, the proto-moderniser who identified the problem, can complete the job.