Whatever its other failings, the Conservative Party has certainly not been neglecting its duty to keep the media entertained over the last few weeks.
After David Davis’s mildly disappointing, but hysterically overcriticised performance at the annual seaside conference, the consensus was that the leadership was still his for the losing. That mantle has now passed to the new frontrunner, David Cameron, after his mildly disappointing, but hysterically overcriticised performance in last Thursday’s television debate.
Cameron’s big clanger, of course, was getting trapped into revealing that he’s soft on drugs; otherwise the grudging “points victory” verdict delivered by the hacks in Davis’s favour was due entirely to the overall impression that Davis showed the better grasp of detail and practical policy.
Substance over substances, if you like. But what a fickle mistress is the camera! At the conference there was DC, away from his lectern, speaking without notes, all energy and passion, every inch a visionary. Last week there was no discernible difference in style or content, but he managed to look like a waffler. In the first instance, of course, he had the platform to himself, and had no flak to fend off from his audience, let alone his main rival. Maybe it was the complexity of the television event that turned the impact of his natural fluency from sniper bullet to birdshot.
Tony Blair, incidentally, is someone else who speaks with statesmanlike command when in control, but turns shaky and petulant when challenged, and David Davis’s most effective blow so far has been to warn Conservatives against the folly of emulating the Labour Party of a decade ago. If he keeps hammering that home, while outflanking Cameron on depth and experience in the hustings to come, he may yet win.
The message has to be that what the party needs is a ruthless manager, not a charming front-man; not a Tony Blair, but a Harold Wilson.
At the time of writing, though, Cameron remains the favourite, and the press, particularly the Telegraph, has been more informative than the broadcast media as to why that is. The Telegraph, after all, numbers amongst its readers the vast majority of opinion-forming Conservative members, and those most likely to cast a vote; and, conscious of that responsibility, has not, in its editorial line, specifically endorsed a candidate. Charles Moore has declared for Cameron in his column, Simon Heffer has dissected Cameron’s ideological credentials in his, while Craig Brown has brutally satirised the emptiness of the young favourite’s rhetoric; Telegraph readers do not need a disclaimer to tell them that the paper’s writers express their own views. But last Saturday’s front page carried the results of a YouGov poll on reaction to the television debate. A clear majority of respondents gave the victory to Davis by all the criteria that ought to matter – but still
thought Cameron would make the better Prime Minister.
This is the doublethink that David Davis has to overcome, and he is going to get precious little help from the media in the attempt to do so, for we have an establishment consensus in the profession that is largely hostile to Conservatism in any form. This means that most of the hacks, especially in broadcasting, will tend to favour Cameron because he will be friendlier to their needs, easier to humiliate in interview, and worse for his party as a result – hence all the rave reviews after conference. Meanwhile, let me just emphasise that the Herald is another paper whose columnists’ views do not necessarily reflect those of its editorial line; which means, in case you hadn’t guessed, that this is one hack who’s backing Davis.