Andrew Grice: Bad case of jitters on Tory bandwagon provides a test of nerve for Cameron

Inside Politics

Related Topics

Four years after David Cameron became Conservative leader, his party is having an outbreak of the jitters. Senior Tories are not yet in a panic about those opinion polls showing their lead slipping into single figures. But they are, naturally, wondering why it is happening.

On the surface, the Cameron show goes on and it is an impressive one. Yet behind the scenes, all is not well. A Tory mole tells me that Mr Cameron has received about 4,000 letters of protest over dropping his "cast-iron guarantee" that a Tory government would hold a referendum on the EU's Treaty of Lisbon. At one point they were running at 300 a day. The only other time he had such a mountain was after the death of his son Ivan.

The letters were not, it seems, an orchestrated plot by Tory Eurosceptics or the UK Independence Party. The issue for many correspondents was not Europe but trust, a promise broken. I suspect we won't hear Mr Cameron use the phrase "cast-iron guarantee" again.

Trust matters. It is no use offering change if the voters don't believe you will implement it. Trust in politicians generally seems to be at an all-time low. The latest episode in the MPs' expenses saga will hardly help. Perhaps the reason Mr Cameron has never reached the pre-1997 heights to which Tony Blair soared in the polls is that many people who fell for him then felt let down later. Once bitten, twice shy.

You can sense a frustration among the Cameroons. Polls which show the Tories maintaining a lead of 10 points or more are virtually ignored, while those pointing to a hung parliament make waves. Newspapers which proclaimed Mr Cameron had sealed the deal have reverted to asking "can he seal the deal?"

What's gone wrong? Labour and Liberal Democrat strategists think the change in the wind has been created largely by the Tories themselves. Labour's internal polling detected "vulnerabilities" after George Osborne's bold move to spell out some spending cuts at the Tory conference in October. Alistair Darling's reluctance to provide much detail of Labour's inevitable cuts in this week's pre-Budget report makes the Shadow Chancellor look even more brave. But it seems that voters do not like the Osborne medicine, such as the pay freeze for public sector workers earning more than £18,000 a year.

The Liberal Democrats sniffed a change in the air this summer. Their focus groups found that people saw Mr Cameron as dynamic and brave but he scored less well on trust and understanding the lives of ordinary people than he used to. Nick Clegg suspects that, if an election were held now, his party would gain from the Tories as many seats as it lost to them, while his goal of seizing some of Labour's northern heartlands may not be as easy to achieve as it looked six months ago.

Any doubts in voters' minds that Mr Cameron is not "one of us" might well have been reinforced by recent headlines about Zac Goldsmith, Lord Ashcroft, Tory plans to cut inheritance tax and the latest offensive by Labour's class warriors.

There is some frustration in the Shadow Cabinet too. Some members argue that the Tories need to show the voters they are not a one-man band, yet the Cameron circle argues the only way to grab media attention for a speech or policy announcement is for "David or George [Osborne] to do it". A team approach was tried ahead of the Copenhagen summit with a series of speeches on climate change by seven shadow ministers. They were excited at the prospect. But only Mr Osborne got any coverage; the rest were ignored.

The environment, once a winner for Mr Cameron as he hugged a husky, is now more problematic. The Tories know that Mr Brown will be at the centre of events as the Copenhagen talks come to a head next week. It is a reminder that, however weak a government, it can still "do" while oppositions can only talk.

Despite that, the Tories have said nothing about the damaging leaked emails sent by scientists at the University of East Anglia. Plans for Tory frontbenchers to call for an inquiry fizzled out. Mr Cameron did not want to be accused of siding with the climate change sceptics, many of whom are in his own party.

So his boldness has its limits. Allies emphatically deny that he is reluctant to ditch policies on inheritance tax and rewarding marriage in the tax system for fear of upsetting Tory traditionalists. They may well be right, but the image persists of a man who has not yet emulated Mr Blair in taking on his own party to illustrate that it has changed. When he was gliding to victory, perhaps Mr Cameron didn't need to pick a fight with his own side, and risk disunity. But as the Tories' poll lead narrows, some Cameroons believe he needs to remind the public all over again that his party has changed.

That Mr Cameron has had so few wobbles in the past four years is a tribute to his success. There was bound to be an outbreak of pre-election jitters at some point. The Tory leader has steel. He is going to need it now and, more importantly, to show it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Real Estate Solicitor 2+PQE - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGH VALUE REAL ESTATE / RESID...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A couple calculates their costs with the help of some paperwork  

It’s the dream of escape that makes couples keep their finances secret from each other

John Walsh
Theresa May  

It's not hard to imagine Prime Minister Theresa May standing on the steps of Downing Street

Jane Merrick
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?