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The Price of Milk

24 April 2012

Following a pretty unpleasant few weeks for David Cameron, yesterday’s attempted fight back seems to have come unstuck by a vocal intervention from the outspoken backbencher Nadine Dorries. Her outburst on BBC’s Daily Politics has been widely reported. It certainly makes for interesting viewing…

Watching this, it can be argued that her comments were said – partly – in jest. But the accusation that the higher eschelons of government are ‘out of touch’ has certainly hit a nerve and comes after a widely-publicised succession of ‘shambles’. The very personal nature of her attack also seems to have taken Cameron by surprise.

Of course, Cameron is not the first Conservative PM to be labelled as ‘posh’. But as the first to have attended a public school since 1964 – Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major all being grammar school educated – his background has been a point of considerable debate. Attempts to draw comparisons between Cameron’s government and past generations of politicians are, however, fraught with difficulty. It must be remembered that any government will reflect the context it inhabits and to compare him to the Tory PM ousted in 1964 – the genuinely aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home – would somewhat miss the point.   

But, when added to the more recent accusations of incompetence, the links between Cameron and the former Earl of Home becomes slightly less implausible. They may even provide a salient lesson for the former.

Alec Douglas-Home’s short period in Downing Street has been typified as the end of a political era. His opponent in 1964, Harold Wilson, certainly sought to contrast Home’s priveledged background with his own and was widely expected to take advantage of a perceived distance between Home and the electorate. Despite this, the 1964 General Election failed to provide  the landslide Wilson had expected and Home performed remarkably well. It could even be claimed that Home’s being ‘out of touch’ was not as damaging as a perception of incompetence that had hung over the Conservatives since the beginning of the decade. A perception that was not helped by Home’s earlier claim – in a joking attempt to appear ‘in touch’ – that he relied on counting matchsticks to understand economic problems.

The lesson of this would seem to be that competence must come first and that poorly understood public relations can be fraught with self-inflicted mistakes.

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