Conference season 09: There is plenty of ground to attack Cameron on, a man aligned with those who excuse or celebrate history's darkest events
Of course, it was a double-edged remark, one that pre-emptively branded his successor a failure. But, in its implication that David Cameron's Tories were a bunch of weaklings, it was also unfair. For the Conservatives on display in Manchester are anything but. They are, in fact, marching towards power, acting in every way like a government in waiting. The ruling circle is confident, whip-smart and, above all, hungry.
The contrast with their counterparts in Labour could not be sharper. When they gathered in Brighton last week, too many of the party's most senior figures came across as flabby, too used to power and its comforts, delusional, kidding themselves that their leader might undergo a personality change between now and the election, or utterly resigned, all fight drained from them.
The clearest sign is that the once-feared New Labour attack machine now stands unmanned and rusted with decay. Tory missteps and gaffes go ignored and unpunished, where, in the Alastair Campbell era of rapid rebuttal, they would have been seized on ruthlessly.
Which is a pity, because the Tories, while not exactly the useless shower suggested by Blair, are certainly vulnerable. If Labour were in fighting mood, there is no shortage of weak spots on the Conservative flank at which they could aim their darts.
They might start with the polls. Not with the headline figure, which shows a daunting Tory lead, but with the rest of the data. According to Populus, 68% don't believe the Conservatives have really changed, while only 28% believe they have. They may like David Cameron personally, but they harbour suspicions about the Tories themselves.
Perhaps that doesn't matter much in our quasi-presidential system. But it's clearly preying on the minds of senior Tories. They say that one of their aims this week is to persuade voters that, yes, they'll be cutting spending, but it "won't be 1980s-style cuts". Hence George Osborne's insistence that, when he wields the scythe through the national budget, he'll always have the poorest in mind. "We're all in this together" was his happy tune.
That suggests a man anxious to deflect unhappy memories – a tactic Labour should be doing its damnedest to thwart. They have the perfect weapon, in the form of the Tory pledge to scrap inheritance tax for the wealthiest, a move that will benefit the likes of Osborne and Cameron but not many others.
Just imagine what a US presidential campaign would do with this ammunition. You could run an ad showing the Tory duo in their Bullingdon tails, reminding voters of their personal wealth, and asking how these two could ever be in touch with real people. You might show a man on a bike, later revealed to be followed by a car. The screen would fill with three words: "David Cameron: fake."
But the ad any American politico worth his salt would be itching to make would open thus. "They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. So what does it say about David Cameron that these are his friends?" At which point we'd see images of the men feted in Manchester yesterday, Michal Kaminski, of Poland's Law and Order party (PiS), and Roberts Zile, of Latvia's Freedom and Fatherland party, who now sit as allies with the British Conservatives in the European parliament – an issue raised first, to his enormous credit, by David Miliband last week.
This is about more than party point-scoring. It is, in fact, a matter of the deepest principle. For there was a time when no self-respecting British politician would have gone anywhere near such people. Kaminski began his career in the National Rebirth of Poland movement, inspired by a 1930s fascist ideology that dreamed of a racially pure nation. Even today, the PiS slogan is "Poland for Poles", understood to be a door slammed in the face of non-Catholics. In 2001 he upbraided the president for daring to apologise for a 1941 pogrom in the town of Jedwabne which left hundreds of Jews dead. Kaminski said there was nothing to apologise for – at least not until Jews apologised for what he alleged was the role Jewish partisans and Jewish communists had played alongside the Red Army in Poland.
Incredibly, Kaminski's Polish party is not the most unsavoury of the Tories' new partners. That honour goes to the Latvian grouping whose members have played a leading part in the annual parade honouring veterans of the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS. Lest we forget, the SS were the crack troops of Nazi genocide; the Latvian Legion included conscripts, but at least a third were volunteers, among them men with the blood of tens of thousands of Jews on their hands. It is in honour of those killers that Cameron's new buddies march through the streets of Riga.
The Tory defence has been weak. They have cited the embrace extended to Kaminski by first, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, and second, the Conservative Friends of Israel, which astonishingly welcomed Kaminski yesterday. What Tories do not point out is that the former is now a fierce anti-Brown partisan while the latter is, as the name suggests, wholly aligned with the Conservatives. Of course they are defending Cameron's decision. And both have spoken chiefly about Kaminski, suggesting a reluctance to defend the Latvian party. Besides, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews has now written to Cameron, raising questions about the Tory leader's new friends in Europe.
The party chairman, Eric Pickles, offered an appalling defence, telling the BBC last month that the Latvian Waffen-SS were only conscripts fighting for their country, and to say otherwise was a Soviet smear. Again, this misses the fact that a substantial minority of the Latvian Waffen-SS were eager volunteers, including veterans of pro-Nazi death squads who had already taken part in the first phase of the Holocaust – and that should be enough to decide that those who march in celebration of men who fought with Hitler, and against Britain and its allies, are beyond the pale.
The talk coming from senior Tories – at least some of whom have the grace to squirm when questioned on this topic – suggesting that it's all terribly complicated, that it was a long time ago and that even SS members were, in some ways, themselves victims, is uncomfortably close to the kind of prattle we used to hear from those we called Holocaust revisionists.
They too tried to relativise away the crimes of the Nazi era, constantly telling us that the Soviets also did terrible things, that Hitler's eastern European collaborators were freedom-loving patriots and all the rest of it. What is shocking is that this garbage is now coming from those defending the party poised to form the government of Britain.
So yes, there is plenty of ground on which to attack Cameron, a man whose judgment allowed him to placate his Eurosceptics by aligning with people who excuse or celebrate some of the darkest events of the last century. Labour might not have much vim left, but if it can't sustain an attack on this terrain, then maybe Blair was right, and they should not be in politics at all.