Leading article: David Cameron needs to reclaim the centre ground

Conservative messages have grown increasingly contradictory

Share
Related Topics

Conservatives will be hoping for one gift above all others this Christmas: a sweeping victory in next year's general election. So is David Cameron, who earlier this month passed his fourth anniversary as the party's leader, poised to deliver for them? The results of our poll today show that doubts remain.

A majority of the public feels that a Conservative government would represent the interests of the well-off, rather than ordinary people. And for all of the present Government's unpopularity, 49 per cent of the population still reject the idea that the Tories represent an appealing alternative. These results add to the impression that, although the public are weary of Labour, they have not yet embraced the Conservatives.

Of course, the Tories' difficulties should not be exaggerated. The frequently made comparison with the run-up to the 1997 general election, when Tony Blair's Labour enjoyed sustained double-digit poll leads, is misleading. That election was a rare instance of popular enthusiasm, not only for a change of government but also the incoming party. Power has changed hands without such a popular mood and there is no reason why it should not do so again next year. The general dissatisfaction with all politicians that springs from the expenses scandal is also a factor. It would be hard to imagine any established political party enjoying 1997-style popularity in the present climate of hostility towards MPs.

But there is, nevertheless, a sense that something is missing from Mr Cameron's leadership. Though he has achieved a formidable feat in transforming his party's position in the polls since becoming leader, in the past year an impression of drift and contradiction has crept in. Mr Cameron's team showed a lack of grip during last autumn's banking collapse. And the Tories' economic policy since then has been one dimensional, focusing exclusively (until relatively recently) on the size of the deficit. There has been headline chasing on social issues too in recent months. The promises of the shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, this weekend to revisit the law on home-owners who assault burglars was an example of the sort of hasty bid for popularity that has become increasingly common from the Tories of late. Mr Cameron's slick team has also looked strangely clumsy at times. The retreat from an unsustainable policy of holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty has antagonised the anti-European Tory grassroots. Expectations were poorly managed.



Image problems



Ironically for a party led by a former public relations executive, the Conservatives have begun to suffer from image problems too. Perceptions of privilege and entitlement swirl around Mr Cameron's team. Labour's recent attempts to reignite the "class war" could be easily dismissed as outdated nonsense, were it not for the fact that one of the Tories' most well-known policies is to scrap inheritance tax for all estates worth less than £1m a year (a move which would benefit some of the wealthiest individuals in the country at a time of economic austerity). The headlines that have surrounded the tax affairs of two prominent Conservatives, Michael Ashcroft and Zac Goldsmith, have also fed the perception that the Tories are a trade union for the rich.

What made Mr Cameron initially seem radically different from his predecessors William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard was his decision to stop talking about those old Tory obsessions of crime, Europe, immigration and tax cuts. Instead, he set reform of the public services at the heart of his agenda.

Mr Cameron's purpose was to improve state schools and hospitals, rather than help the well-off escape to the private sector. Mr Cameron spoke about issues that the Tories have traditionally ignored such as poverty and the environment. In other words, Mr Cameron made a play for the centre ground, where British elections are traditionally won and lost.

That early dynamism is still there. It can be seen in the plans of the shadow Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to free up the schools system. It is in Mr Cameron's proposals to allow the voluntary sector to play a radically expanded role in the provision of public services and yesterday's announcement on hospices. But that reforming message is being obscured by conflicting signals and regressive policies.

This is about more than getting the mood music right; it is about coherence of direction. Over the coming months, there will be siren voices telling Mr Cameron that the job of decontaminating the party's image is done and that the time has come to counter the threat of fringe parties. He would be mad to listen to them. The best present Mr Cameron could give his party this Christmas would be to drag the Conservatives back to the reformist centre.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice