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Disarm your enemy by agreeing

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Is the new Tory leader using Christ's way of opposition? Jonathan Bartley wonders: 'Less confrontation  in politics is far  from a weak option'


Many people doubted that David Cameron was serious when, on assuming the leadership of the Conservative Party, he announced his intention to take a less adversarial line. After all, the same rhetoric had been heard many times before from incoming party leaders on both sides of the House of Commons. However, the proof of his words came when Tony Blair, facing a rebellion from his own backbenchers over his proposed education reforms, had to rely on Conservative votes to get his measures through.
 
The significance of this development should not be understated. For centuries, backbenchers have trooped through the lobbies with their party colleagues night after night, sometimes even unsure what a particular vote was about. It sufficed to know that their opponents were going into one division lobby and they had to go into the other.
 
But Mr Cameron's new strategy also highlights something not often talked about in political life - at least, outside the occasional public scandal - and that is the power of love. No one is attributing altruistic motives to the new Tory leader; but his resolve to oppose the Government when he feels it is right to do so, but to support it where he agrees with its position, is demonstrating that a less confrontational approach to politics is far from a weak option.
 
As Christians and others involved in conflict resolution have often pointed out, if you unexpectedly agree with your opponent, it can disarm him or her - particularly in a system that is built on, and sustained by, opposition. Mr Blair's rescue by the Conservatives has had observers asking some profound, even theological, questions. "When is a victory really a defeat?" asked the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, on his weblog - a question as apt for a discussion of the atonement as the ten-o'clock news.
 
Mr Cameron's approach is thoroughly subversive. As we can see from the reactions of many in the Labour Party to the vote on school reform, when people show tentative signs of "loving their enemy", it causes that enemy to stop and re-examine their own position very carefully. For the past 20 years, Labour has defined itself largely by its opposition to the Conservatives. Many observers expected it long ago to splinter into Old and New Left, but the party has been held together by its hostility to - sometimes even hatred of - the Tories. When such an enemy starts agreeing with you, it raises all sorts of questions about your own party's values, and the uneasy coalition it represents begins to fragment. Suddenly your own colleagues can seem very similar to your sworn adversary.
 
Mr Cameron's resolve to pursue a more "loving" - and, indeed, truthful - politics may prove to be an approach that both disarms and makes a mockery of those in power. As those well versed in atonement theory will say, that has been done before. But they might also point out that it does not automatically lead to the kind of regime change some people have been hoping for. 

Jonathan Bartley is director of the theological think tank Ekklesia.

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