Steve Richards: A sobering question for David Cameron: why are you not doing better in the polls?

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The Independent Online

David Cameron must be tempted to raise a glass each time he hears comparisons between the position of Gordon Brown and that of John Major. After all, the Major era ended with a change of Prime Minister.

He should resist the temptation to raise too many glasses, partly because he would be drunk most of the time. The comparison between Major and Brown is made so frequently it is in danger of becoming a clich. More importantly, the comparison invites a sobering follow-up question. If the Government is in such a mess, why are the Conservatives not doing better?

In the mid-Nineties Labour's ratings in the opinion polls were in the high 40s and sometimes above 50 per cent. After a period of sustained pounding for Brown, the Conservatives hover around 40 per cent. In John Curtice's poll of polls for November, reported in Tuesday's Independent, the Conservatives had fallen by 1 per cent.

Part of the explanation is that, in spite of the hype, the Government is not in a comparable situation to John Major. Historical parallels are great fun, but inaccurate guides to the present. Major had a small majority at a time when his party was split over Europe. Brown has a substantial majority and, while various ministers protect their corner, they are not fighting over a fundamental policy area. The reasons why Harriet Harman chose to remortgage her house will not be one of the great, defining issues at the next election.

In contrast the economy tends to have a decisive impact on elections. As Hamish McRae wrote in yesterday's Independent, the most likely development in Britain over the next few years is slower-than-forecast growth rather than a recession. Such a downturn will be nightmarishly challenging for Brown, but not necessarily as fatal as the withdrawal from the ERM proved to be for Major.

Brown knows what its like being in a firestorm after 10 years in the Treasury, representing a party that had been disastrously mistrusted over the economy. He is a more formidable opponent for Cameron than Major was for Blair.

Once the over-excited comparisons with the 1990s are dropped, Cameron can argue with some justification that he has made the most of his chances, not just in relation to recent crises erupting around Brown, but in exploiting the more fundamental tensions hovering over the Government. In particular, Cameron is well placed to make the most of increasingly tangible divisions between disaffected Blairites and the new regime.

Cameron is astute in promoting his party as the genuine reformer of public services, finishing a project tentatively begun by a Prime Minister who was fatally constrained by his Chancellor.

I should add that, in my view, there are plenty of problems with the Blairite reforms. Quite often, Blair was not constrained enough. The former prime minister had not thought through the relationship between state and private sector when services are free at the point of use. By the end he had also lost interest in issues of accountability, allowing local providers to roam free although they were being financed centrally by the taxpayer.

Even so, Cameron is absolutely right to assume the mantle of Blairite reform, recognising that too often the Tories had fallen into the trap of opposing Blair when he was implementing policies much closer to their beliefs. In supporting such reforms he is not only being truer to the spirit of a centre-right party, he also decouples the ardent Blairites from Labour, hence their briefings to some journalists that they feel closer to Cameron than Brown. This makes Brown's necessary task of reforming Blair's reforms more difficult. Brown does not want to provoke mutinous internal dissent or face further simplistic allegations that he is "anti-reform".

Cameron helped to undermine Blair by supporting him. As a bonus, the support helps to undermine Brown too.

Cameron and his senior colleagues have also made the most of the fleeting crises whirling around Brown. The shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, was devastating when confronting Alistair Darling over the missing discs. Cameron has tormented Brown at Prime Minister's Question Time (although he failed to hit home yesterday). Other shadow cabinet members are also starting to perform well. Almost unnoticed, the Conservatives have a credible alternative government for the first time since they lost power, a tribute to Cameron's leadership.

Yet they have not made a decisive breakthrough. I have not heard a single pollster predict confidently that the Conservatives will win an overall majority. There have been no defections at a national level, always a reliable sign of where the wind is blowing. Indeed, until recently Brown was confident that more Tory figures would switch to Labour. I get no sense that we have reached what Jim Callaghan called a sea change, a moment when the tide turns and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Standing back from the current frenzied atmosphere, and the reasons why the Conservatives have not made such a breakthrough are obvious. Voters cannot be sure what they are turning towards.

The best example of Cameron's strategy of out- Blairing Blair was David Willetts' speech delivered in the early summer when he put the case for freeing up schools. Within weeks, Willetts was moved from his post. Cameron explained to Willetts at the time that he needed to close the row down within the party about grammar schools, an explanation that offers little reassurance that the Conservative party has greatly changed.

The fuzziness is reflected in some contradictory policy announcements. Cameron calls for schools to be set free and yet is prescriptive about what should be taught, most recently grabbing headlines about the methods required to ensure kids can read by the time they are six. More widely at yesterday's Prime Minister's Question Time, Cameron asked two questions that implied support for rises in public spending on defence and prison-building yet his overall policy is to spend the proceeds of growth on tax cuts as well as expenditure.

More generally, he speaks about the "post-bureaucratic" age, a clever phrase and one that might make waves. Yet he bemoans the cut in bureaucrats after the merged Customs and Excise lost the CDs. He promises not to "bang on" about Europe, but is still pledged to leave the moderate centre-right grouping in Brussels and has not ruled out a referendum once the latest EU treaty is ratified. Labour would not have got away with such contradictions in the mid- 1990s.

Most voters do not follow the intricacies of policy development, but they sense when a party is ready for government. In a sea change, the tide must know where it is heading. There is a great storm out there at the moment, but the lines of an alternative destination are not yet clear enough for the currents to move irretrievably in a new direction.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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