Monday 7 August 2006
Bruce Anderson: David Cameron is doing well - but why not better?
An Opposition with a plausible leader ought to be 15 points ahead, not five
In purely political terms, being a Tory leader of the Opposition is the hardest job at Westminster. Tories hate being in opposition and often forget to display their gratitude to those who try to lead them out of it. It has always been thus. Any Tory who fondly believes that Mrs Thatcher's career as Opposition leader was an inexorable march to an inevitable triumph merely reveals his youthful ignorance. It was not like that. It was a bumpy journey, with failures as well as successes - and the Lady herself never took her ultimate victory for granted.
Neither, needless to say, does David Cameron. But his first few months have seen one change in his party's fortunes which is even more significant than the rise in the opinion polls. There were moments when it was just about possible to think that William Hague could win an election. But they were brief ones. Early on in Michael Howard's leadership, Tony Blair was so worried that he wobbled in the direction of handing over to Gordon Brown. That was also a brief interlude.
In Mr Cameron's case, there is a difference. From the moment that he was elected, almost everyone at Westminster took him seriously as a potential Prime Minister - including Tony Blair. Gordon Brown would insist that this does not apply to him, but if it is as easy as he claims to dismiss David Cameron, why so angry and upset? Poor Gordon; to paraphrase an Irish parliamentarian, his cup of troubles is running over and it is not yet full.
The Tories' position in the opinion polls is at a 13-year high. In the unlikely, though not impossible, event of a poll showing the party back in second place, there would be shock/horror headlines. This is a measure of Mr Cameron's achievement.
That said, the recent polls measure an insufficient achievement. The Government is disintegrating. Everything it touches turns to ridicule. There is hardly a minister who could claim to enjoy the public's confidence. As for Mr Blair, he appears to have lost interest in Britain's domestic problems. He used to be an exponent of triangular politics: finding third way solutions which drew on the best of right and left. He has now invented a new triangulation: London as a midway point between Washington and Barbados.
A PM who is no longer in contact with reality; a set of ministers who cannot cope with it. In normal circumstances, an Opposition with a plausible leader - as Mr Cameron is - ought to be 15 points ahead, not five.
There are two explanations for this under-performance. The first, offered by some of Mr Cameron's closest advisers, is that the Tory party has still not purged its contempt. The Tory brand was so brilliantly discredited by Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell et al in the run-up to 1997 that many voters are still not prepared to support the party's application to rejoin the human race. In response, the Tories must modernise and modernise again.
For his first few months, David Cameron took that advice. He was determined to demonstrate that his party showed middle Britain's concerns, anxieties and values. Even those who do not agree with the obsessive modernisers ought to concede that this was a necessary and successful first phase. But it is now time to move beyond it.
Although the ultra-modernisers such as Francis Maude and Oliver Letwin may not realise it, they are expressing a lack of confidence in David Cameron's leadership. They do not seem to understand the extent to which his personality has already changed the public's perception of his party. Ad nauseam, the modernisers will repeat a point thrown up by the opinion polls.
Ask the voters if they agree with a popular-sounding policy, and a sizeable majority will say "yes". Tell them that it is a Tory policy, and there will be a significant defection. But I am willing to wager that the same would not be true if the policy were identified, not as a Tory one, but as David Cameron's. Tory Central Office ought to have more faith in its leader's powers of salesmanship.
In turn, Mr Cameron ought to have more faith in his ability to make harder-edged points without being accused of returning to the Stone Age. A large number of voters now believe that the country is in a mess and that the Government is to blame. They do not just want warm fuzzies from the Opposition. They want to hear their own anger articulated.
David Cameron has his roots in the country. He has only lived in west London for a few years; Notting Hill has played a very small part in his political formation. But that will not prevent his opponents claiming that he only speaks for Notting Hill - until he decides to lend his voice to some of the strong political emotions which are increasingly dominant among the electorate.
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