The next election will be quite a contest of negatives. As our ComRes opinion poll today confirms, the voters have a low opinion of both potential prime ministers, a mere 25 per cent saying they have a "favourable" view of David Cameron and just 19 per cent saying the same of Ed Miliband. The small advantage enjoyed by the Prime Minister is tempered by the finding that he is no longer an obvious asset to his party. Although some voters say they would like to vote for him but not for his party, they are outnumbered by people who prefer the Conservative Party to him.
This only goes to show that Nigel Farage, favourably regarded by more voters (26 per cent) than Cameron, really does represent a big chunk of public opinion.
In a way, there is nothing new in this. My earliest political memories were of Ted Heath and Harold Wilson, who were regarded as interchangeable and uninspiring. The excitement of being against the establishment was provided by a flowering of left-wing groups that eventually coalesced under Tony Benn's banner, who lost, and on the right by free-market fundamentalists who were eventually harnessed by Margaret Thatcher, who won.
Hostility to politics-as-usual has been stronger than usual since the financial crash, and since the MPs' expenses episode in 2009. That is why the Scottish National Party has been doing well in Scotland and Ukip in England. The combination of nationalism and anti-establishmentarianism is a powerful one in times like these. Powerful, but not overwhelming. In the end, the fear of change and the security of the status quo prevailed in the Scottish referendum. The question for Cameron's party conference speech on Wednesday is whether he can generate a similar uncertainty about the prospect of a Miliband-led government to pull off the same trick in the general election.
Cameron pays attention to history. I remember speaking to him before he gave his conference speech in 2009, his last before the election which he hoped would make him prime minister. He said he had been reading Margaret Thatcher's speech in 1978 and Tony Blair's in 1996. They had no policy in them, he said, "just values, very strong".
Perhaps that was Miliband's thinking behind the ghastly phrase but plausible concept of his speech last week, "the principle of together". This week, though, Cameron needs a different model. This time, he should have been rereading Thatcher's 1982 speech and Blair's 2000 one, in which they set out their stall for re-election.
Thatcher seems to be speaking from a different age. In a sense, she was: her election as prime minister in 1979 was closer to the Second World War than to the present day; and her speech was, the Thatcher Foundation notes, the first to have a backdrop across the whole of the back of the hall behind her, "of the kind which is now universally used at party conferences".
She was proud of her victory in the Falklands, but she avoided triumphalism, and the sale of council houses was a more solid achievement on which she based her claim to a second term. "Half a million more people will now live and grow up as freeholders with a real stake in the country and with something to pass on to their children. There is no prouder word in our history than 'freeholder'."
Blair in 2000 made a more familiar pitch for re-election: "Let us be honest, a few people doubted the economy would be stronger under Labour. But it is. They like the one million new jobs. They believe we are trying to make progress on schools and hospitals. But for many families life's still a struggle … Inflation may be lower but the kids' trainers don't get any cheaper."
Cameron's speech this week will follow the formula set out in both those speeches. It will be addressed to "hard-working taxpayers", a change from the hard-working families of previous years. Voters as taxpayers are more likely to be concerned about balancing the Government's books than voters as families, the consumers of public services. That is a clever response to an opposition leader who forgot to mention the deficit.
The speech will have the same structure as Thatcher's and Blair's: what we inherited; what we promised; what we've done; where we are headed. The "what we promised" bit is awkward, because eliminating the deficit by the end of the Parliament was the big one. Cameron and George Osborne seem to have "forgotten" the deficit too.
But in a contest of negatives at a time when all politicians are distrusted, the most striking finding in our ComRes poll is the question that uses the word "trust". Only 31 per cent agree with the statement: "I trust Cameron and Osborne to make the right decisions about the economy." But this compares with 21 per cent who agree with the same statement about Miliband and Ed Balls. I think that is a better guide to the election than Labour's six-point lead.Reuse content