Friday 31 December 2010

Don't overestimate David Cameron: the big political lesson of 2010?

2010 was David Cameron's year. He became Prime Minister, so returning his Conservative party to power after the first ever Tory-free decade in modern British government - though as the latest British Prime Minister not to be 'directly elected' in our Parliamentary democracy, falling short of his express wish (as late as April 24th) that ""Prime Ministers should be voted into 10 Downing Street by the people of Britain, not because their party has stitched up some deal".

Having skilfully negotiated his way to power anyway, Cameron has been good at performaing the role of Prime Minister. His personal leadership skills - especially being calm under pressure in May 2010 as in October 2007 - have been good. But he has been lucky too, perhaps especially in how little attention has been paid to a record as a party leader as much about failure as success.

For 2010 was also the year in which just about everybody overestimated David Cameron.

If you want to understand the biggest political mistake which each of the major parties made during this turbulent political year, look back and you will find that is the common thread. Each party made a crucial miscalculation about the political context, largely because they over-estimated the electoral power of David Cameron.

Why were the Conservatives the first election frontrunners to take the (laudable) risk of agreeing to televised leaders' debates? Surely because they were very confident that the superior communication skills of the leader would see the gamble pay off handsomely. Every Conservative expected their man to rise best to the occasion and finally "seal the deal" with the voters. He didn't. So Michael Ashcroft leads a vocal camp of those who believe the debates cost the Tories a majority.

Why were Labour so much the worst prepared of the three major parties for Coalition talks which represented the governing parties best conceivable election outcome? It was because Labour expected Cameron to win. The sad fact is that a hung Parliament in which Labour might still be able to negotiate a further spell in office exceeded the expectations of the party's campaign strategists. (John Rentoul argued cogently last weekend that the Labour leadership question remained open up to the failed January 6th plot (I thought at the time that June 2009 had been largely decisive). What can not be disputed is that Gordon Brown was bolstered in both 2009 and 2010 by the belief that any chance to stay in power was unsalvageable. Cabinet ministers who were personally sure Brown would not turn things around were also too fatalistic to believe any move against him worth the risks of change).

Thirdly, there is only way to make sense of why Nick Clegg made so much in the campaign of a tuition fees pledge he could not keep, which has both done the most and most symbolised the deep damage to the LibDems' public credibility and popular standing. Give Clegg his premise that he expected to fact a Tory government, and the pledge would demonstrate fox-like political cunning from which the LibDems could have benefitted electorally.

Over-estimating David Cameron proved the national sport of the political classes in 2010. It united the bookies and the punters: Betfair projected a 62% chance of a Tory overall majority on the day that the campaign proper began. It united the newspaper propreitors, editors and much of the blogosphere too. If Iain Dale's blogging is much missed, that is not because of the accuracy of his political crystal ball. Even after the polls closed, Dale was offering to "run stark naked bollock down Whitehall" if the (uncannily accurate) exit poll was right.


There were exceptions. The New Statesman unfashionably predicted a hung Parliament. The Tory right was sceptical of the Cameron strategy, though mostly kept quiet until after the event when this was reflected in Tim Montgomerie's influential post-election inquest for ConservativeHome, and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson's observation that "“It is odd to think of David Cameron as the most electorally unsuccessful Tory prime minister in history”.

To give credit where it is due, the most significant group which was clear sighted in not falling for this general exaggeration of Cameron's popular appeal was the Tory leadership itself.

They knew on the morning of the election that they had failed to secure a majority. Andrew Cooper has said that Cameron spent election night focused not on 326 seats but whether they would get across the 300 seat line, and so probably get in. They had known for weeks and months that no Tory positive argument had any grip with the voters they needed to persuade - yet continued to return to the comfort zone of negative attacks on Labour, while secretly planning for hung Parliament negotiations.

The desire for a change from Labour was remarkably high - 74% no less. The number who wanted a change to the Tories (34%) or the vote they got in the end (36%) was astonishingly low in the political conditions of 2010. The political (expenses v sleaze) and economic conditions (recession v recovery) were as favourable for the opposition than in 1997 - and arguably better. Then Tony Blair stormed home, putting 9% on Labour's share. Cameron fell far short of the campaign he sought to emulate.

How badly did it go wrong? The most interesting thing about recent British electoral history is that the Tories got 31-32% in 1997 and 2001 - suggesting a very strong 'tribal' Tory vote in any circumstances - and yet only 36% in 2010.

The Tories got 33% in 2005 with Michael Howard, before the recession, and without facing Gordon Brown. Does anybody think David Davis - or even Michael Howard, promoting his bright young things like Cameron, Osborne and Gove - would not have got very close to 36% in 2010?

So was David Cameron's "reaching out" appeal and all of that brand detoxification, in the end, worth any votes at all? Or has his party leadership failed in the core test he set himself, meaning he had to sneak into Downing Street by default?

Making the same mistakes: How everybody is over-estimating the Tories again

If over-estimating David Cameron skewed most pre-election commentary, what have we all learnt?

Nothing, it would seem.

The funny thing is that all of the same people are doing it again. Matthew d'Ancona even declared that the Tories had already won the next election when Labour elected Ed Miliband. Shouldn't he first offer a coherent explanation of why they failed to win the last one against Gordon Brown?

Over-estimating David Cameron has skewed much commentary of the political context after the May election. Take the widespread assumption that Cameron was pretty certain to quickly win a clear majority if there had not been a Coalition in May. Nobody knows what would have happened in a second election - but there is little or no evidence for this belief.

(Those who argue that was very likely have never answered the central mystery. If a second election would have seen the Tories romp home, why on earth didn't they engineer one? Why was there no significant pressure from the Tory shadow Cabinet or Parliamentary party to hold out for this inevitable prize? Surely because it was very far from a sure thing. Political history suggests asking the same question again gets a similar result - with the Tories then having the mandate problem, perhaps snatching opposition from the jaws of government).

But, again, there is one group who doesn't agree. Yes - it's the Tory leadership again. Think about why they are yet again cranking up those electoral pact missives to their LibDem beau Clegg, with a new round sparked by Ben Brogan's authoritative account during the tuition fees debacle.

Yet everybody seems to buy the argument that it is a "save Clegg" campaign (from the people who brought you "Kill Clegg" with their press friends last time).

Of course, this makes absolutely no sense.

Why would Tories care one iota what happens to Nick Clegg if, amidst LibDem collapse, they could simply strike out and when a majority of their own amidst those sunny economic uplands? (ConservativeHome can prove that four out of five don't).

So remember this in 2011: All of the pact talk is surely about saving Tory skins, not LibDem ones.

There's a simple reason too. The Tory leadership can see why the next election could well be rather harder to win than the last one. Confident Tory ideologues like Tim Montgomerie can put these deep insecurities down to the status of the Philip Gould-bible in ProgCon circles, emulating the insecurities of New Labour which meant Tony Blair and Cherie feared defeat by William Hague in 2001.

The difference is that the evidence of Tory electoral weakness is much stronger.

If the Tories want a majority, they have to break that 36% glass ceiling.

So who wasn't convinced the Tories had changed in 2010?

These key groups of voters did not believe Cameron when he said that he had changed the Tories. Specifically, Scots, northerners, public sector workers, ethnic minorities and Londoners - even when fed up with Labour - found it very difficult to vote Tory.

Many thought it was time for a change. But they didn't believe David Cameron's promise that he could eliminate the deficit with no cuts to frontline services! Even with a personal pledge from a PM-to-be, they thought it sounded like a fairytale.

Why? As Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh report on Populus' focus groups for the Tories.

The most worrying finding for the Conservatives was the perception that they would, in a crunch, stick up for rich and privileged people. Cameron privately confessed late in 2008 that the persistence of this last image kept him awake at night.

So how is that now going with those who did not vote Tory in 2010?

We know from the government's falling approval rating that those who voted Tory are pretty happy with the government - and most of those who didn't are not.

Note now how the government wins praise for its bold moves - reckless for some in transforming education, health and welfare entirely while undertaking one of the greatest gambles with the economy and public spending - almost always from people who were cheering it on in May 2010.

Look at the reactions of those who didn't - including those anxious LibDem voters - and it looks harder to see how the Tories will be able to persuade those voters that the Coalition has shown that they have laid to rest all of those "same old Tories" attitudes after all.

Labour has a lot of work to do to try to get elected - on economic credibility, and on putting together a different but electorally effective political and policy programme, rather than running on essentially the same platform for a fifth time when the agenda is 18 years old. But it is simply a misreading of the political context to regard Labour as facing the scale of electability challenge which Labour faced from 1980-87, and with hindsight through to 1992 too, or the Tories from 1997 until 2005

There's a long way to go in this Parliament. Either major party has a lot of work to do to seek an overall majority, as Labour uses the defection of one-third of LibDems to start neck-and-neck, and the Tories work out how to break that 2010 ceiling without which they risk remaining short of a serious shot at a majority.

Yet media commentators prefer to magnify backbench grumblings than to think seriously about the politics of the next election.

For example, what if David Cameron asks the country for a Tory majority mandate - and comes back without one?

Surely now, the legitimacy problem would be his. He's Ted Heath in 1974. He's Gordon Brown in 2010.

If he has less votes or seats than last time, he should surely announce he is taking responsibility and get off the stage pronto, to see if his party can hold on under somebody else. If the Commons arithmetic means another combination is viable, the legitimacy issues would be completely different from May 2010.

Should Labour have one more seat or one more vote, they have every right to the first talks with any minor parties who survive!

The Labour leader has a perfectly good shot at becoming PM, even before he has done a great deal to set out his stall as party leader. He has the problem of every political leader in receiving contradictory advice - to set out his stall in 100 days while understanding that nobody wants to hear from a defeated party yet. So it is fair to say that Ed Miliband has yet to give his party clear definition; it is arguable that David Cameron's own public definition is not much clearer - after five years, not three months - and indeed that the increasingly entrenched public definition of his government (that its basically about cuts) is quite at odds with what he wants it to be.

If I were Ed Miliband, there are two lessons I would take from David Cameron's party leadership so far.

Firstly, that credibility can't be won by counter-intuitive photo opportunities. Cameron had a bold and positive first 100 days. He got his party a hearing. It was just the next four and a half years that were wasted, leaving voters ultimately pretty unsure as to what, if anything, Cameron really had to say.

Secondly that, well before the end of the Parliament, Ed Miliband had better have come up with a "doorstep narrative" for the next election campaign which is a damned sight more useful than "the big Society" was for the Tories at the last one.

We shall see whether Iain Martin gains more recruits for his Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband campaign. Observe that there are two secret founder members - David Cameron and George Osborne.

One sometimes hears the accusation that the Tories approach to power suggests that they think they are born to rule misses the mark. They are much less certain than they appear. The bigger problem is with the rest of us - and how our deference in expecting to see the Tories govern distorts political perceptions.

That helped to make 2010 David Cameron's year. Will he stay as lucky in 2011?


Irene said...

I think the headline should be don't UNDER estimate Cameron - the left (and some of the right) just don't get him and there lies the clear, present and future danger for labour!

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing an objective and truthful article.

You can't win by attacking Cameron directly, you have to attack his intellectual foundations.

There is a gap in your knowledge that surrounds the former SDP members who joined the Tory Party around 1992. One chap in particular, Daniel Finkelstein is the one to watch, because he is one of the most influential chaps in the story of how Cameronism came about. For a significant minority of MPs in the government, the coalition is an SDP reunion. And the coming merger of the Tory Party with the Orange Book Liberal Democrats is suspiciously similar to David Owen's conception of the SDP. Have these SDP chaps been pushing the Tory Party into becoming David Owen's SDP for the last 20 years? Many Tory voters would be angry and appalled if they knew the truth.

More details here:-

Archbishop Cranmer said...

Sorry to ruin your 'Tory-free decade' assertion, but there was no year zero. Ergo, a decade is 1-10, not 0-9. Ergo, by returning to power in 2010, the noughties were not a Tory-free decade. That is the indisputable mathematics of the fact: but you can dress it up as whatever cultural statistic suits you.

Sunder Katwala said...


Yes, thanks for that. So we know when you celebrated the millennium then; though I think you were in a (mathematically correct) minority, but overruled by common (cultural) usage.

1997-2010 may have been the only 10 year period though I'd need to check.

Archbishop Cranmer said...

Mr Katwala,

The Party was out of power between 1850-74. That chronic period in the wilderness is yet to be surpassed.

And of course His Grace celebrated the Millennium with the rest of society: the New Year festival is a cultural manifestation. He was simply making the point that the calendar is bound by mathematics as immutable as the heavenly spheres from which it derives its regularity. 1990-99 is not a decade.

Sunder Katwala said...

Your Grace,

Even in those post-Peel wilderness years, Derby and Disraeli did get enough short goes in power as to never quite be out for 10 years - with Disraeli often demonstrating what now seems a rather Cameronesque flexibility.They did have one major "legacy" achievement - in the 1867 reform act - if created rather more from political opportunism than any particular principle on the franchise question.

There was no Tory premier from 1906-1922, however, the party was back in the wartime and post-war coalitions from 1915.

BrianB said...

I enjoyed this thought-provoking post and agreed with much of it.
On one small point, though: you write --
"Why were the Conservatives the first election frontrunners to take the (laudable) risk of agreeing to televised leaders' debates?"
The answer must be obvious: they thought that Cameron would run rings round Gordon Brown (and, like everyone else, they failed to foresee that boyish Clegg, unencumbered by baggage and free, he thought, to promise the moon in perfect safety, would steal the debates from both the others). But the point I want to query is your word "laudable". I thought the "debates" (which were in fact no more debates than the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols are a debate) were a classic example of dumbing down. They dominated the run-up to polling day at the expense of any serious discussion of issues and policies, as distinct from a stream of over-rehearsed sound-bites and sneers; their impact depended almost entirely on the degree of fluency, charisma, confidence, agility, youthfulness and good looks of the three contestants; they created the nonsensical illusion that Clegg was as much a serious contender for the prime ministership as Cameron or Brown; they relegated the other senior Tory and Labour leaders to undeserved obscurity, when their defects and talents also ought to have been tested almost to destruction in the election campaign, not just those of their leaders; they pandered to the attention deficit disorder of television audiences, with their artificial structure, ludicrous time-limits and febrile grasshoppering from topic to topic; in short, they infantilised the whole election process.
And the worst thing is that we're stuck with the damn things now at every future election for all eternity. Cameron's reckless challenge to his adversaries to debate with him (and Brown's inexplicable, suicidal agreement to do so) was not in the least 'laudable': it was a cheap ruse designed to give him an unearned advantage over Brown plus a weak response to the pressure from Murdoch's Sky News, bleating away for leadership debates for obvious commercial reasons -- politics as entertainment.
There's arguably a case for the presidential debates in the US where the main candidates, prior to their nomination, are very often relatively unknown to the bulk of the voters. This is rarely the case in the UK: the two contenders for the keys to No. 10 have had to work their way up the Westminster greasy pole for years, and by the start of the campaign are pretty (or very) well known both to the electorate and to their party colleagues and adversaries.
In short, the debates here were a disaster in every respect bar one: they actually confirmed your shrewd thesis that almost everyone, probably including himself, seriously over-estimated Cameron's talents, which in truth are strikingly meagre, as the debates showed and as events, dear boy, events are increasingly beginning to confirm. Look behind the sublime self-confidence of the Old Etonian Oxford Union star, and there's nothing there.

T.N.T. said...

I don't think Cameron is a political genius but he is a skilled improviser and in 2010 that was actually the right set of skills to have.

A really good analysis Sunder, although I think you should have mentioned the constituency boundary changes which are going to seriously reweight future elections in the Tories' favour, AV or no AV. The current system is pretty biased of course, that's why a 2% lead returned a majority for Labour in 2005 but a 7% lead didn't return a majority for the Tories in 2009.

On the decade thing, the Archbishop's proposal would have the consequence that (for example) 1980 was in the "seventies" - it's ludicrous. Clearly, the "tens" should be 2010-2019. Who gives a fig about the year zero? It's something we put into the system retrospectively anyway. If necessary, change all BCE dates to make it consistent (so 50 BC becomes 49 BC, etc.) and then 1 BC becomes year zero CE and then it's all consistent.

On the debates, I don't think we're stuck with them. If I were Ed Miliband I would refuse to do them because of the obvious problem that it's "two against one" with the Tories and Lib Dems having been in a coalition. That's a perfectly reasonable position to take and if Labour are ahead in the polls at that point the Tories can of course send a chicken round, but a fat lot of good that did them in 1997. If Labour are behind in the polls they've lost it anyway by that point.

T.N.T. said...

Sorry I meant "in 2010" not "in 2009" for the Tories' 7% election lead, of course...

Stephen Wigmore said...

A generally excellent piece. A few errors though.

David Cameron has been very successful in everything apart from fighting the long and (start of) the short election campaign in 2010. This is of course by far the most important thing. But it is worth stating anyway.

Basically in 2010, after 4 extremely competent years as opposition the Tories blew the election campaign by not giving the voters a good reason to vote for them. This is not because they did not have popular policies or figures. It is just because they failed to actually talk about them, preferring vague generalities like 'change' and 'hope'. That kind of waffle may have worked for Obama, but it wouldn't work for them. The one time they did actually talk about a policy, the NI cut, it was wildly popular, but by then it was almost too late.

Basically no-one saw cleggmania coming, not even Clegg. The fact neither Brown nor Cameron spent the first debate actually getting stuck in, but rather trying to look statesmanlike and agree with nick as much as possible, gave Clegg an opportunity no-one saw coming that he, fair play to him, took and ran with. This changed everything.

After this point Labour was basically blown out the water, and Cameron spent the rest of the campaign somewhat successfully trying to claw momentum back. He sort of did, drawing the 2nd and winning the 3rd debate. But not quite enough to get a majority. But enough for more than 300 seats.

To say the political and economic conditions were perfect is silly. How are crises caused by rich bankers and rich MP's natural territory of Conservatives? How is it easy going into an election arguing for massive, painful spending cuts? Neither of these are what Cameron could have wanted. Blair had much easier circumstances.

Also, you're wrong with your figures. The 31, 32 and 33% figures for '97, '01 and '05 are GB figures (excluding NI), whereas the 36% for '10 is the UK figure. The correct GB figure for comparison is 37%.

It's nonsense to say Michael Howard would have done as well. In 2005 8 years of Blair and Iraq were enough to put only 1.6% on the Tory's '97 score. There is no reason to think they would have done better to '10 without Cameron.

You also have to account in higher turnout. Cameron added 2.1 million votes to the Tory score. That's as big an increase as Blair managed from '92 -> '97.

Between 1979 and 1992 Labour vote went from 37->34 and seats from 269->271. That's real failure. Cameron did well in extremely difficult circumstances. He just didn't do quite well enough.

Also another election would probably have given the Tories a majority, if only by collapsing Lib Dems. But it would have been a crap one. Why take a 10-20 seat majority, totally beholden to the Tory right, when you can have an 80 seat majority with the Lib Dems to act as human shields.

Stephen Wigmore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sunder Katwala said...

Thank you to BrianB, giroscoper and Stephen Wigmore for these detailed comments and for some very interesting dissenting engagement with aspects of the argument.

I would disagree with BrianB about the debates - think they are here to stay, and on balance its a positive - though you argue your corner well. Douglas Alexander made some similar-ish points at the General Election of 2010 book launch, from a 'debates good and here to stay, but need to avoid squeezing out policy scrutiny'. The debates aren't amazing Socratic dialogues. They are an hour of pretty unmediated direct political communication of a slightly old fashioned talking head TV kind. What I would avoid are media attempts to sex them up. This might be a theme for a further discussion at some point on the blog.

giroscoper - its a fair point. But the boundaries I *think* will make a relatively small difference, and less than some hope/fear.


Some very interesting points.

Thanks for the UK/GB clarification.
Nuffield study gives Tory UK numbers as 30.7% (1997), 31.7% (2001) and 32.4% (2005) for 36.1% in 2010.

It wasn't my intention when blogging, but one could point out that David Cameron did run Conservative candidates in Northern Ireland, where Hague and Howard didn't. (I don't know for sure if those votes are in the 10.7 million Tory votes tally; perhaps somebody else does).

Its pretty marginal as, in any event, Cameron did considerably over-estimate his chances in Ulster!

Stephen Wigmore said...

Yep, those are the correct UK numbers. For the GB numbers you basically round up to the nearest % for Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dem.

Cameron did run NI candidates, but they aren't included in the figures for the Con vote in 2010. As they run as UCU (Ulster Conservative and Unionist) candidates rather than straight Con ones. This can be seen on the BBC and Wikipedia result tallies, it's easily found with google.

Adding them on doesn't do much to the Tory score, since they only got 0.3% of the UK vote. Including them the Cameron got 10.8 million votes or 36.4%

The Cons did overstimate their chances in NI. No-one realised the Ulster Unionists were in as bad a state as they were. Still, it was worth a try. A lot better than a sure share of nothing.

And the general aim of encouraging normal politics in NI was a good one.