Michael Brown: The Government is deeply unpopular, so why are the Tories not further ahead?

Lack of definition is the probable cause of their inability to achieve a breakthrough in the opinion polls
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The Independent Online

As a young man David Cameron was a tall lanky lad - all skin and bones. Notwithstanding his trendy swimming trunks, on display during his recent Corfu holiday, he is beginning to show signs of maturity, or early middle age, with the imminence of his 40th birthday, which he will celebrate just a few days after this autumn's Bournemouth party conference. But his task in the months ahead is to develop some more political muscle.

Mr Cameron's leadership election campaign, a year ago, provided only the bare bones of what the country could expect from him. During the past few months, Tory policy has put on weight and has been vaguely fleshed out in some areas, but its still lacks strength in the right places.

Yesterday, Mr Cameron relaunched his original document Built to Last, which was published in a fairly vacuous form earlier this year. That original document, which set out a statement of broad aims and values, has been subjected to discussion among party members at roadshows held around the country which have been led by members of the Shadow Cabinet. The new version embraces some of the policy hints that have come from both the leader and his shadow team at various stages during the past six months. Constructively, it sets out the areas where the policy reviews, still not due for another year, are most likely to be concentrating most of their specific efforts.

In the next few weeks, party members will receive copies of the latest version and will be invited to approve the conclusions in a postal ballot. I expect a Soviet-style result, with a 99.7 per cent approval - Norman Tebbit will probably be the only opponent. If the document were rejected, Mr Cameron presumably would have to resign.

There are now six overall aims, which can be summarised as follows: to encourage enterprise; to fight social injustice; to meet the great environmental threats; to provide first-class health-care, education and housing; to fight global poverty; to protect the country and defend its freedoms. There is, in fairness, some explanation as to how these aims would be achieved, but the overall picture still lacks definition; and this will continue to dog Mr Cameron through the next stage of his party's recovery.

This lack of definition is the probable cause of the party's inability to achieve a breakthrough in recent opinion polls. While the leadership appears publicly relaxed about its position, they should be worried that following the Prescott affair and the cash-for-peerages row, there is not a much bigger poll lead.

The present government is as unpopular as the Wilson/ Callaghan government of the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives were often more than 15 points ahead. To some extent, the continuing good performance of the economy enables voters to remain agnostic towards the Tories. But with unemployment rising this week to its highest level for six years, a window surely exists for the Tories to recapture cash-strapped lower-middle-class voters in marginal Labour seats.

Utility bills, council tax bills, petrol prices and the inevitable mortgage rises will also soon impinge on families for whom pay increases in the private sector are not matching the rate of inflation. Their living standards may actually fall in the year ahead, and they will be interested in what the Tories have to say about the size of their wallets.

Here lies a conundrum for Mr Cameron that remains unresolved in the latest aims and values document. The 1970s Tory cry "keep more of what you earn" is still surely more potent than the claim of Mr Cameron's focus group that public services are the voters' top priority. Within the aim of "encouraging enterprise" is the commitment to "put economic stability and fiscal responsibility ahead of promises of tax cuts", and only then "to share the proceeds of growth between investment in public services and tax reduction."

The tax cuts question remains the rock on which Mr Cameron's leadership will be judged, and by more than just right-wingers. Several Tories have pointed out that the gains in the May elections, especially in London, were greatest where Tories promised to cut council spending and reduce council tax. Why, they ask, if the formula is so successfully locally, is it deemed so unappealing by Mr Cameron's focus groups nationally? Bromley was a classic example. In May the Tories stormed to victory in the town hall, but the more equivocal message, during the parliamentary by election a month later, led to a meltdown in the Tory majority.

Such lack of definition also caused problems when Mr Cameron sought, earlier this week, to put the Tory response to the Government's handling of the recent terror crisis. He was certainly right to give an opposition response and answer his critics who felt that his team has been too timid in their reactions to events at home and in the Middle East. But he fell into a trap of nit picking over areas of detail while not wanting to fall foul of the political consensus over the action taken by John Reid.

He made several good points, but given the inevitable criticism his remarks would attract, he might just as well have been bolder. There is a sense among the public that there is no logic to the Government's actions, and many Tories at grass-roots level suspect Dr Reid of using the aftermath of the crisis for his own political purposes.

However, politicians are caught in a potential trap if they seek to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with each other on the basic strategy but then get bogged down in arguments of detail. Mr Cameron fell into that trap and betrayed a nervousness when asked about the wider long-term issues regarding government policy for the Middle East.

Mr Cameron is still haunted by the legacy of his predecessors in their attitudes to Mr Blair's "war on terror". Both Iain Duncan Smith and, to a lesser extent, Michael Howard accepted a fundamentally flawed Blairite approach to backing all things American. If Mr Cameron had appointed Sir Malcolm Rifkind as his shadow foreign affairs spokesman, instead of William Hague, he would have signalled that the Tories' approach to foreign affairs would be very different. One detects that the Tories know the Blair and Bush approach is wrong, but lack the boldness to say so.

Mr Cameron has implicitly acknowledged that his original aim of ending Punch and Judy politics was no more than a beginner's idealism. With the prospect looming of a Brown - or maybe now even a Reid - leadership of the Labour Party, Mr Cameron must recognise that, like it or not, muscular politics will be the most likely form of discourse in the run-up to the next general election. Built to Last has lost some of its earlier flab, but it still needs toning up by shadow ministers at the forthcoming party conference.

mrbrown@talktalk.net

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