Thursday, 25 February 2010

Do Tory wobbles mean the end of Cameronism?

Do the Tory party understand why they are slipping in the polls?

And do the party strategists know what to do about it?

Broadly speaking, no and no.

That, at least, seems to be the conclusion of the best informed and must-read piece of the week on the state of the opposition is from political editor James Forsyth in The Spectator, already previewed by John Rentoul, who picks up on the 'dead shark' dramatisation - Jaws meets Damien Hirst? - of the fears and frustration of the Tory inner circle.

Forsyth reports on the discussions among the inner circle and the shadow cabinet:

Tory MPs are torn between schadenfreude and panic. They have been largely ignored by the leadership for the past four years and they complain that if only Cameron had listened they could have alerted him to some of these weaknesses before they became so damaging. The shadow Cabinet — which has been bypassed for most of Cameron’s tenure — is now being consulted. It met for more than two hours on Tuesday — after the Cameroon powwow in Notting Hill — and had, unusually, a proper discussion of the political situation. One member tells me that almost everyone spoke at the meeting. That this is considered news says a lot about how the shadow Cabinet is normally conducted.

The piece suggests a lack of clear lines of authority within the Cameron inner circle, along with tactical differences, for

Steve Hilton "is unconvinced by the quality of the party’s polling, so he just doesn’t use it, and instead relies on his own instincts and knowledge".

George Osborne is struggling to combine the campaign co-ordinator and Shadow Cabinet role.

Andy Coulson, with George Bridges, have been shooting down Hilton's ideas to put out more policy, on the grounds that they are half-baked.

David Cameron has decided it is time for the Tories to go much more negative, get Michael Gove to knock some heads together, and project William Hague much more prominently as the face of the Tory future.

(Back to the future indeed. And this rather suggests to me that Mr Positive significantly underestimates just how negative his core messages have been since at least 2007, somehow maintaining the self-image that he has been running a positive and less 'punch and judy' campaign while doing the opposite. David Miliband's challenge to Cameron's myth-laden miserabilism skewered that rather effectively).

It strikes me that this is not simply an issue of tactical differences about whether to go into more or less detail, potential crossed wires on the campaign organogram, or making unforced errors through being underprepared as the kitchen heats up. Forsyth's account suggests that what remains unresolved are the major strategic questions of the Tories' campaign message ('‘We don’t really have a message or a purpose', says one of the Tory press team to Forsyth), and, beyond that, their strategy for government.

The Cameronism of Hilton and the Cameronism of Coulson have been lauded as "the politics of and" offering something for everybody and all things to all people. But they are also quite different accounts of both the Tory campaign and the Tory future, in clear tension with each other.

Cameronism is either supported (or tolerated) by most of the party on the 'brand decontamination' grounds that it can rehabilitate the core instincts of Thatcherism in gentler language for different times; there has been a smaller inner core who insist that the project is much more than that, without ever quite explaining what it is.

That is the account not of their critics on the left, but of those on the right who sympathise with the project.

Take Julian Glover in Prospect last Autumn, the most detailed sympathetic account to have the inner circle try to explain what Cameronism is, and which found that "these thinkers, although confident that they’re right, seem stumped for the popular language to get across their proposals, which are sometimes simplistic".

This bid for power is full of paradoxes: revolutionary and modest; intensely centralised and profoundly devolutionist; traditional yet potentially transformative; open and yet run by a tiny group of a few dozen true believers. More striking still is that Cameron has become Britain’s likely next prime minister without conveying to his fellow citizens, except in the sketchiest of terms, the least idea of what he intends to do ... In pessimistic moments, the small group around the leader wonder if they will be able to make their modern Conservatism a reality. They are trying to ride a party whose instinct, when it hits trouble, will be to buck them off.

Or take James Forsyth's Spectator account of why there is no such thing as Cameronism.

He is a Tory pragmatist. He knows that nothing can be achieved without power and is relaxed about ideological inconsistencies.

If there was some clearer sense of what Cameronism is really about, the Tories would have a clear compass to steer by now. Choppier waters were inevitable at some point - not even the most gilded can expect to glide elegantly to power - and they would have had a very clear sense of what to do when they got here.

But they don't. And that will make the traditional 'clear blue water' drum beat from the party's right, in the media, online and among candidates, rather harder to resist.

And so, reports Forsyth:

The next task is to activate William Hague. Mr Cameron describes him as his ‘deputy in all but name’ — but no one really thinks that this is true. Hague is now being called upon to appeal to the Conservative base, some of whom fret openly that Mr Cameron has made too many concessions to a discredited Labour government.

Is that change we can believe in? Or might the outcome of the campaign wobble be that Cameronism almost over before it ever really began.


Soho Politico said...

At least part of the Tories' problem, I think, has been that the public dislike Brown, but also pity him. That means they want rid of him until someone tells them that this is what they should want. So it is difficult for the Tories to exploit the public's feelings towards Brown. The Tories' attacks on Brown of late have often come off as bullying precisely because Brown is such a pitiable figure: it's like kicking a three-legged puppy, and so (cliche alert) offends against that British sense of fair play. And add to this that, when Cameron goes on the attack, it helps to reinforce the negative qualities that are now increasingly being associated with him by the media, and in the public consciousness - coldness, arrogance, tendency to hubris. So, I think, if anything, Labour will be pleased to hear that Cameron believes that the answer to the party's poll woes is to go still more relentlessly negative.

Michael said...

I think there is an element of the devil and the deep blue sea about this - I have sympathy with the idea that the Tories are slumping because they are not offering a consistent brand message, or of not standing for anything in particular, of being too fuzzy on too many things. But at the same time, in what they have already done the Tories have managed to isolate (and lose?) those that would normally be considered their base - whether it be on Europe, taxation and the deficit, immigration, and even snide little comments by Gove on 'backwoodsmen' etc.

I tend to think that the decision facing the Tories is a rather straightforward one, and it essentially consists of not trying to face two ways at once - do you secure your base, who really are losing faith (simple longing for power is all that seems to be keeping the ship afloat for the time being), or do you keep on flirting with LibDem/floating voters and hope that gets you over the line?