Making of men of the moment

December 2, 2005

Huw Richards asks old friends of the Tory leadership contenders what shaped the two men's ideologies

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at Oxford University, vividly remembers his tutorials with David Cameron when the Conservative leadership contender was an undergraduate at Brasenose College. "He was extremely able - he got a very good first, and I'd place him in the top 5 per cent of students. What was most interesting about him was that he liked argument. He wasn't interested in being told 'that's a very good essay', but he'd want to find points that we could debate," he says.

John Blundell, director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, has known Cameron's rival, David Davis, since they were both students in the early 1970s. He points to his friend as a politician whose fascination with gadgetry - "his house has computers everywhere and he always has the latest gadget" - is matched by a passion for ideas. "His idea of a good evening out is to gather a group of professors and other thinkers, people with a knowledge of different disciplines and walks of life, and sit down and discuss their views. He's very happy in that sort of company and loves listening to and questioning people, not showing off his own ideas and knowledge. When he was Science Minister, he would scan 50 journals a month," Blundell says.

The stakes are higher in the Conservative leadership poll, whose outcome will be announced on Tuesday, than in any British party election since Tony Blair won the Labour leadership in 1994. Whichever of these two politicians becomes Conservative leader will inherit, if not the certainty of becoming premier that Blair was bequeathed by John Smith, at least the best prospects of any Tory leader elected in opposition since Margaret Thatcher in 1976. The job once carried with it a near-guarantee of time in No 10.

Ten consecutive leaders over 70 years from Bonar Law to John Major also became premier. But the past decade has seen a reversion to the gloomier succession whose last representative was Austen Chamberlain, elder brother of Neville, of whom it was said that "he always played the game and always lost it". Michael Howard, who steps down on Tuesday, is the third consecutive leader not to have become prime minister.

But the 2005 general election at last saw an erosion of Labour's massive 1997 and 2001 majorities. Early findings from the British Election Study suggest that the next poll is likely to be closer still. The next Tory leader can at least expect one achievement beyond his three predecessors - outlasting Blair.

Andrew Gamble, a left-of-centre professor of politics at Sheffield University, writing in Fabian Review , warned: "If they (the Conservatives) can convince the electorate that they are serious about maintaining state funding to preserve universal services, and that their aim is to improve performance by decentralising delivery and empowering all parents and patients, not just the privileged few, then they may have found a serious long-term platform on which to test Labour's hegemony."

Philip Lynch, senior lecturer in politics at Leicester University, says: "Most Conservatives are happier than they were in previous leadership elections, confident that whoever wins will be an asset to the party."

It is not, points out Kevin Hickson, lecturer in politics at Liverpool University and editor of Political Thought of the Conservative Party since 1945 , a straight Left-Right choice: "Davis's support cuts across those boundaries, with people such as Damian Green backing him." Blundell chuckles at representations of Davis as a rightwinger when he recalls their first political interaction in the 1970s. "I was interested in liberal free-market ideas, which meant you might be identified as a fascist or worse, while David was very much on the managerial left of the Conservative Party, taking Peter Walker and Michael Heseltine as his role models. But he treated other ideas with respect and was interested in keeping up with intellectual fashions. In the late 1970s, the Tory faces you could count upon seeing at any heavy-duty political lecture were Peter Lilley and Davis."

Blundell points out that Davis's intellectual roots are in science and management, with a Warwick University degree in molecular science followed by a London Business School MBA and a spell at Harvard University. "There has always been a conflict between the scientist and manager - who came first and believes things can be managed and engineered - and the later influence of Hayek, laissez-faire and letting things flow." An important element in Davis's development was two years in Canada. Blundell says: "He saw a failing Canadian hospital turned around by a for-profit American company and this intrigued him. He was also exposed to American ideas. He is one of the few Conservative MPs who is well known in the American think-tank market, frequently in contact with the Heritage Foundation in Washington and the National Centre for Political Analysis in Dallas, and well aware of what others are doing."

Hickson points to Davis as closer to traditional Conservative social morality than Cameron, although Lynch notes that this element in his campaign may have been forced on him. "He needed to attract traditionalists who had not yet cast their votes in the election," Hickson says. Cameron's very public taking-on of traditionalist Daily Telegraph commentator Simon Heffer is noted by Bogdanor and Hickson as key. Hickson says: "There is a tension in modern Conservatism between traditional authoritarianism and liberalism."

Cameron falls very clearly on the liberal side. Bogdanor recalls: "His politics are a reflection on his attitude to life, which can be summed up as 'live and let live'. He believes people do best when not being told what to do, something that is probably the base of his Euroscepticism."

Cameron has maintained contact with his former tutor, who is not a Conservative. Bogdanor says: "He is very widely read, and a few weeks ago borrowed from me Simon Green and Adrian Wooldridge's book on the boundaries of the state. He doesn't accept ideas wholesale but reads and thinks for himself, with a very strong sense of what is politically possible."

A similar picture is drawn by Ed Vaizey MP, who has known Cameron since they worked together at Central Office in the late Thatcher years. Vaizey points out that this sense of the politically possible has been underlined by Cameron's experience as a constituency MP. "He has developed a strong sense of how politics affects people on the ground," he says. Cameron is not, he adds, as deeply rooted in the work of "policy wonkery" as some. But he is keenly interested in the work of think-tanks, notably Reform and Policy Exchange, and in "new localism", which aims to devolve state power to local level.

Whoever wins will have to lead the Conservatives in a very different political climate from the 1980s heyday of Thatcherism. Consider, for example, that Iain Duncan Smith - once elected leader from the hard Right - now leads a think-tank called the Centre for Social Justice. Lynch says:

"The issue is how to balance the benefits of market forces with the requirements of community, a sense of society and leaving nobody behind that (Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary) David Willetts in particular has grappled with."

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