David Cameron has made a speech in which he bewails the lack of trust the nation places in politics and politicians. He is right to do so. He wants to ‘Mend broken politics’. A noble ambition. But he is the wrong person to do it. David Cameron, who will not come clean on his misuse of drugs as a student, who caused a photograph of himself at the head of a pack of drunken diners in Oxford to be withdrawn from circulation because of the image it painted of him (an accurate one), who engaged in nothing more than the politics of the playground in Tony Blair’s last months, who has demanded the toughest penalties for unproven allegations against Labour members, but dithered for 24-hours before withdrawing the whip from Derek Conway when there was no doubt about the case – this David Cameron is in no position to lecture the nation on mending broken politics.
This is the David Cameron who bewails Labour’s spin, but decided to have himself photographed cycling to work to save the environment, while a van drove behind him with his files inside (we should recall that the van was not supposed to appear in the photographs). This is the David Cameron who, in his work on an earlier Tory manifesto, was a man of the right wing, who now poses as a liberal, a centrist, a green, clean and friendly neighbourhood handy-man, ready with a hammer, some nails and a lick of fresh (green) paint to fix the fences that naughty Labour have broken down.
I’m no fan of Labour. I’m no fan of their centralising vision of government, their arbitrary imposition of the will of the towns onto the countryside, and their failure to take responsibility for the mess of half-truths and half-baked ideas that took us into Iraq.
But the corrosive style of politics that we have seen persistently erode public confidence in public figures is more a result of Cameron and his predecessors, Messrs Howard, Duncan-Smith and Hague. Cameron is strong only in sniping and jeering. We have yet to see a coherent set of policies for how he would run the nation. More importantly, we have yet to see any coherence between the values he claims to have now, and the values he appeared to live by before he was in the public eye. Yes, of course he is careful now. If he were not careful, he would never have been elected as Tory leader. But in the years when other people were volunteering to work at the Oxford night shelter, or counselling other students, or going off to work for charities and unpaid voluntary organisations, what was Cameron doing?
In an interview with Channel 4, David Cameron is recorded to have said that he had not taken Class A drugs since being elected to Parliament in 2001. This is extraordinary. Is this the best that he can possibly say for himself?
Pressed on drug use on Question Time, he is recorded to have said “I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes and we do things that we should not and we are all human and we err and stray.” Yes, quite possibly. We all did things as small children which we are ashamed of. But Cameron was punished at Eton for cannabis use. If he had been brought up in the area where I was brought up, and his parents had not had the power to protect him, he might quite conceivably have gone to prison for this. Legally speaking, it is clear that he engaged in criminal behaviour. Should we simply gloss over this? Perhaps. But the evidence is that he continued to use drugs at Oxford. Should we gloss over that? Not to my mind. I don’t ever recall meeting David Cameron at Oxford – I’m fairly sure he wasn’t a member of the Christian Union! I wonder if I ever saw him drunk in the streets with his dining club pals. At this distance, it is hard to tell. But I do recall absolutely that at Oxford, in those years, we considered ourselves to be adults, responsible for our own actions. That responsibility does not fade with time. But if the best that he can claim is that he has not used Class A drugs since 2001, and he made that claim in 2005, then all he has really said is that he has been clean for four years.
It is absolutely essential that politics in Britain is cleaned up. In fact, I am firmly of the opinion that a whole generation of MPs of the ilk of Derek Conway have to go. A Tory councillor recently confided in me that there were many more such as he, he merely had the misfortune to be caught. Giving those MPs a lick of paint, and parcelling them off to the back benches is insufficient. One of those MPs who should go is David Cameron. Perhaps with regret, perhaps with a sense of irony for a man who could have been much more if he had lived a law-abiding life from the days of his ‘wake-up call’ at Eton. But if Mr Cameron really wishes to mend broken politics, then his greatest contribution will be to leave it.