David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Everything is different about this election – apart from the message the Tories  are sending out

For all his commanding self-assurance David Cameron endures a roller-coaster ride as a leader. He has yet to win an overall majority and polls suggest that he will never do so, meaning that the current election would be his last. Cameron began his leadership hoping to be the Tony Blair of his party, changing the Conservatives so they might make headway in the north of England, and indeed in Scotland, in the way that New Labour stormed the south in 1997. Now he contests the closest election for many decades, hailing policies that are similar to those espoused by his recent predecessors as Tory leader.

No wonder Cameron was uncharacteristically tentative when he faced an opening onslaught from Jeremy Paxman last week on the growing number of food banks. Who was Cameron meant to be as he answered? Was he the compassionate Conservative who, early in his leadership, had visited council estates – mirroring Blair, who had spent much of his early leadership in the company of business leaders? Or was he the tough Tory who is proposing to cut the welfare budget by at least £12bn in the first two years of the next parliament?

Quite often Cameron tries to be both. Tonally, he is closer to a Harold Macmillan one-nation Tory, while advocating policies that are in some respects to the right of Margaret Thatcher’s. Sometimes he pulls off this balancing act brilliantly. But starting out on a second election as leader, the divergence is getting harder to sustain.

When a leader of Cameron’s polish stutters, it means there are deeper forces at play. They are to do with policy and context, not his capacity to perform. When Cameron became leader of his party in 2005 he had one indisputable insight. The Conservatives had lost three elections in a row and therefore needed to change. In a way that was crudely derivative, Cameron assumed he could be a Blair-like figure in order to achieve his objective. But in terms of context and his own internal thinking he was closer to the position that Neil Kinnock was in when he became leader of the Labour Party in 1983. By the time Blair had become leader, a lot of the heavy lifting had been done in terms of dumping Labour’s previous vote-losing policies and ridiculous internal mechanisms. By contrast, Cameron inherited a party that had recently lost an election advocating the same policies as it had in 1997 and 2001.

In response, Cameron claimed to support the Labour government’s level of spending, and he discovered a passion for the environment. He wanted the party to stop banging on about Europe. He chose to address the TUC rather than the CBI. This was the only phase of his leadership when his party was well ahead in the polls. But unlike Kinnock, Cameron did not stay the course. He changed policies and his party.

Cameron’s response to the 2008 financial crisis was the key moment in his leadership. In contrast to mainstream leaders across the western world, including the right-wing republican US administration, Cameron opposed a fiscal stimulus and called for immediate real-term spending cuts. For Cameron, the crisis seemed like an opportunity but in fact it turned out to be a trap. Yes, it gave him the chance to follow his instincts and bring him in line with his party in terms of spending and the role of the state. The crisis also gave him the space to frame an economic argument around the deficit, a framing that still applies in this election. Every interviewer dutifully follows Cameron’s cue and wastes acres of time asking senior figures fruitlessly how they will cut spending to “end the deficit” – as if this was the only economic indicator that mattered – a kind of fantasy Accountants’ Question Time.

But for Cameron the trap was, and is, bigger than the opportunity. During the last election he was in the absurd position of claiming that his “Big Society” was the idea in which agencies such as charities would be given the chance to provide public services. At the same time he was pledged to cut the budgets of charities. This time he seeks to re-fight the 1992 election by claiming that a Labour government would lead to an explosion of tax bombshells. In order to give this claim any credibility he seeks to wipe out the deficit in two or three years exclusively through spending cuts. Like William Hague in 2001, Cameron has also pledged tax cuts without specifying precisely how he will pay for them.

If he had been told in 2005 that he would be fighting the current election in this way, he would have been taken aback. Perhaps he is very slightly taken aback now, which is partly why he inadvertently spoke of his retirement, and performed awkwardly, during the Paxman interrogation.

The reasons for Cameron’s failures to change his party are complex and by no means entirely down to him. In relation to Europe, a significant section of his party did not want to change. I do not blame Cameron for offering a very dangerous referendum. He had no choice but to do so with Ukip breathing down his neck. The Conservatives have become a difficult party to lead, more so than Labour – a dramatic reversal in the post-Thatcher era.

In an election of wild cards there is one strikingly familiar ingredient. No one knows how many votes Ukip and the Greens will secure, or how many seats the Liberal Democrats will keep. Labour pitches a post-New Labour message. The SNP makes hay in Scotland. Nearly all seems different in this historic campaign except for the Conservative message, which will be largely unchanged from recent elections. What will make voters support something they have rejected in elections since 1997? In this strange election, the familiar is as significant as the wholly unfamiliar wild cards.

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