Andrew Grice: the week in politics

One David Cameron? Trouble is, Tories need 10 more
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The political world has overreacted to David Cameron's impressive first few days as Tory leader. Some Tories act as though the next election is already in the bag. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs accost me in Commons corridors to assure me their party is not panicking about Mr Cameron. That, of course, means they are panicking like hell.

Wiser Tory heads worry how their new leader can fulfil the great expectations of him. Mr Cameron is aware of the problem. A few hours after his points victory over Tony Blair at his first Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, he was telling people it wouldn't always be like that, that he would have bad days too.

The real time to judge Mr Cameron will be when he hits a rough patch. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all started off in the centre ground but veered right to silence doubters in their own party. The demeaning end result was Mr Howard, supposedly a prime minister-in-waiting, launching the Tory policy on gypsies. Memo to Mr Cameron: leave your policy on gypsies to your deputy junior environment spokesman.

Some Tories believe the party's long search for their "Clause IV moment" has ended, that Mr Cameron is their equivalent of Tony Blair's symbolic ditching of Labour's support for public ownership. They are wrong. Having a charismatic, strong leader is a necessary condition for winning power, but not enough.

The Tories hope Mr Cameron will transform the party's discredited brand. They point to opinion polls showing that Tory policies are much more popular when voters are asked about them without being told the party supports them. But the product needs more than a new veneer. I suspect that people will not trust the new Tories until they have confidence in their values.

Voters may think Labour has failed to deliver but believe its heart is in the right place, notably on health and education. The Tories must eliminate perceptions that they are the champions of a better-off minority rather than the majority who depend on public services.

An unpublished poll by Populus last weekend shows the scale of the task. Almost half of swing voters (47 per cent) believe the Tories "haven't really changed at all" since losing power in 1997.

Only 28 per cent think they have changed for the better, and 19 per cent they are worse.

Andrew Cooper, a director of Populus and former deputy head of the Conservative Research Department, told me: "The Conservative Party's negative brand image is deeply ingrained. They are widely viewed as stuck in the past, out of touch, opportunistic, dreary, weak and motivated by the interests of the well-off, rather than those of ordinary people.

"Voters will believe the Conservative Party has really changed only if everything it says and everything it does consistently adds up to the picture of a party that has moved on, lives in the modern world and cares about the many, not the few. David Cameron can't do that alone; all of his team must do it if voters are to be persuaded that they mean what they say and that they've really changed."

If the Tories were a football team, their supporters would now be singing, "There's only one David Cameron", But that's their problem: what they really need are 10 more David Camerons.

His Shadow Cabinet reshuffle disappointed some Tory modernisers. Can the many familiar faces still at the table change the old ways and show the iron discipline needed to transform the party's image?

Even Mr Cameron's natural allies are having trouble sticking to the new script. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, launched personal attacks on Gordon Brown before and after his pre-Budget report. He described the Chancellor as "unpleasant and brutal" and having "psychological flaws". Hardly an example of the new consensus politics trumpeted by Mr Cameron.

If others follow suit, the voters will regard Mr Cameron's call for end to "Punch and Judy politics" as a piece of old politics.

I suspect the new consensus will not last long. Traditionalist Tory MPs - and there are still a lot of them - do not like voting with Labour. Mr Cameron's offer to back Mr Blair's education reforms will cause tensions in the Shadow Cabinet.

Tory tensions over Europe and tax will also surface. Mr Brown thinks he has found Mr Cameron's Achilles heel: his pledge to "share the proceeds of economic growth" between public services and tax cuts. The Chancellor says that means spending cuts. During Prime Minister's Questions, an animated Mr Brown twice shouted "Money!" at Mr Blair as he urged him to challenge Mr Cameron over how he would match Labour's investment in education.

Mr Blair did so, eventually. The Prime Minister doubts that his party will be able to rerun the theme of its last two election campaigns: Labour investment vs Tory cuts. But it won't be his party by the next election and Mr Brown is convinced the argument will still be just as potent.

My guess is the Tories will struggle to win trust for Mr Cameron's policy unless he says that, in some years, the growth in public spending might have to outstrip economic growth. Offering both higher spending and lower taxes is not a credible message: the voters do not believe they can have their cake and eat it.

So Mr Cameron will have to persuade his own party to accept a painful truth: it might not be able to promise tax cuts. Now that really would be a Clause IV moment.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

Comments