If David Cameron really wants to show that he and the Conservative Party intend to bring honesty back into politics, he could start by giving direct answers to direct questions.
I avoid politicians on television as a rule. Blair made lying respectable, in that politicians no longer even pretend to be telling the truth, and Brown makes Blair look almost honest – it takes a while to work out what the falsehood is with Brown whereas it was usually obvious with Blair. The sight of any one of them makes me shout imprecations at the screen, which spoils the programme for everyone else.
Since David Cameron has no policies which can be distinguished from Labour’s, he needs some other point of difference, something which encourages people not to lump the whole pack of them together. He could have chosen to be open and straightforward – a unique selling point in British politics and one which could win votes.
I caught a glimpse of him in the run-up to the Southall by-election. It had become clear that the candidate which Central Office had dumped on Southall, Tony Lit, was not necessarily a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative – indeed had been photographed a few weeks earlier cosying up to Tony Blair, to whose party he had just given £4,800.
I don’t much mind whether Tony Lit had undergone a sudden conversion, was a runner with hare and hounds or just a businessman oiling any wheels which might help his company. Blair’s legacy is that one assumes anyway that every politician is a self-serving hypocrite. What I do mind is that David Cameron could not bring himself to give a direct answer to the direct question “did you know Tony Lit was supporting Labour a few weeks ago?”
He muttered something about being late for a meeting, said something mildly deprecating about the questioner, and disappeared inside. My complaint is not just that he is pre-programmed to duck such questions. It is that there was nothing to gain by trying to hide the fact that he had been caught on the hop by the revelation about Tony Lit. It was obvious that he had not known about Lit’s recent past. He could have gained a few marks (that is, potential votes) by saying so.
The Central Office researchers who had picked Lit were going to be blamed anyway, either for choosing him at all in ignorance of his past or for not briefing Cameron about it. Cameron could have come across as a disarmingly decent bloke by smiling and saying, no, he had not known about Lit, but thought him a fine candidate anyway.
That would have set him apart, and given some hope of a new attitude to politics, but he could not bring himself to do it. Instead he just avoided the question. The expression “they are all just as bad as each other” is part of the ongoing loss of engagement between politicians and voters. David Cameron illustrated very graphically why this is so.