Saturday, September 01, 2007

Can Cameron bounce back?

My weekly column today looks ahead to the new political season and in particular at the task facing David Cameron as he attempts to claw back the ground lost prior to the summer break.


The political year 2007 thus far has been a year of changing seasons. The underlying narrative of the spring was: Who could stop Gordon – and would David Miliband or anyone else even dare to try?

No-one did, of course, and hence the underlying narrative of the summer became: How high could Brown bounce – and could it persuade him to call an early General Election?

Well, I gave my verdict on that four weeks ago, and though there’s still time for me to be proved wrong, the prevailing wind now seems to be moving firmly in the direction of a poll in spring 2008 or later.

So assuming I am right and we are not moving into immediate pre-election mode, what, then, will be the underlying narrative of the autumn? I think it will be: Can Cameron burst Brown’s bubble?

Whenever that election is held, the Tory leader has much to do between now and then if he is to claw back the ground lost in the weeks and months since the leadership handover transformed Labour’s prospects.

If the events of the past couple of weeks are anything to go by, Mr Cameron is certainly going to give it a try. But the question is, how?

Does he continue to try to reposition his party on the political centre ground, in the face of continued sniping from his grassroots and the risk that his party will appear more and more divided?

Or does he retreat into a “core vote strategy” and face the inevitable accusation from Mr Brown and Labour that, for all his talk of caring Conservatism, the party hasn’t really changed?

On first examination, Mr Cameron’s behaviour over the past month has given succour to those who have called on him to pursue a more traditional Tory agenda focusing on the core issues of Europe, tax, immigration, and law and order.

So on Europe, he has been ratcheting up the pressure for a referendum on the new EU constitutional treaty - with a bit of help from David Blunkett, who seems to have put himself at the head of the first serious backbench rebellion of the Brown premiership.

Knowing quite how big a deal to make of this is a puzzling conundrum for Mr Cameron, given that the opinion polls say quite contradictory things about the European issue.

On the one hand, they say that most people agree there should be a referendum on the wretched treaty, on the other, that people are generally turned off when the Tories start “banging on” about Europe.

Immigration is a similarly double-edged sword. Mr Cameron’s contention this week that immigration had been too high over the past decade appears to be widely shared by the public as a whole.

But at the same time, the floating voters the Tories desperately need to reach appear to be alienated by such talk, suggesting it actually does them more harm than good.

By contrast, as I noted in last week’s column, law and order provides potentially much more fruitful ground for the Tories, with violent crime on the increase and rising concern about the “broken society.”

After ten years in power, Labour is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the charge of failing to be either tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime.

Potentially the biggest potential Tory vote-winner of all, in my view, is Inheritance Tax, which Mr Cameron is keen to abolish in line with the recommendations of the recent party commission on taxation and regulation.

The problem here for the Tory leader was not so much the message as the messenger. Entrusting the job of chairing the commission to the right-wing bogeyman John Redwood was a clear error of judgement.

Nonetheless, scrapping inheritance tax makes such obvious political sense that I would be amazed if Mr Brown does not in some way attempt to purloin this idea sometime between now and polling day.

Once upon a time, it was a tax which affected only the super-rich, but rising house prices coupled with the phenomenon of fiscal drag have pulled more and more of Middle England into its ambit and this is now reaching a critical mass.

So is Mr Cameron pursuing a “core vote strategy?” Many of the people who have been urging such a course on the Tory leader now think so.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential traditionalist website Conservative Home, said this week: “For a lot of us grassroots who have wanted to see this shift, it is beginning to happen.”

A more balanced verdict came from BBC Online’s Nick Assinder, who said the fact that Mr Cameron is now happy to debate such issues is a sign he is trying to reassure worried traditionalists that he really is a Conservative.

“After the best part of 18 months refusing to promise tax cuts, avoiding Europe and immigration and offering a middle-ground, often liberal agenda, that is not about to go unnoticed,” he added.

But to argue that Mr Cameron is seeking to reassure some of his party’s traditional supporters is not, of course, the same as arguing that he is pursuing a “core vote strategy.”

For my part, I think he is simply trying to have it both ways – exactly as Tony Blair did prior to 1997 when he attempted to put together a coalition of “New Labour” and the “heartlands.”

That coalition swiftly broke down after 1997, once Mr Blair’s determination to define himself in opposition to his party’s natural supporters became crystal clear.

But by that time, it didn’t matter. Labour was in power, and those MPs who thought Mr Blair should show more respect for the party’s traditions could effectively be marginalised.

Whether Mr Cameron can pull off the same trick now depends largely on whether he can instil the same sort of internal discipline on his party that Mr Blair managed between 1994-97.

By that point, Labour had become so desperate for power that they were prepared to subjugate all their most cherished values to the pursuit of that quest – and entrust it to someone they knew wasn’t really one of them.

I am far from convinced that the Tories have yet reached this point. Many still seem to believe that if Mr Cameron plays the old tunes loud enough, the voters will be forced to listen.

Keeping such people on board while steering his party towards the political centre ground is a hugely difficult tightrope for Mr Cameron to walk. But walk it he must.

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carol42 said...

I am a Scot living in England from a solid working class background, council house, dad steel worker prospered thanks to free university education. Nothing on this earth would persuade me to vote for Gordon Brown. I suspected Tony was a charming fraud from the beginning but never quite hated him. I loathe Brown, he is a coward, his fiscal success was built on his first two years and I despise the way he forced Blair out and made sure he never had to be elected by anyone. I think the devolution 'settlement' is an unfair fraud on English people without their consent. Independence should always be a matter for Scotland but devolution should have been a matter for Britain. We, the really hard working people of Britain, have been taxed from all angles to no effect on anything we are supposed to be paying for. I would be afraid to go into a hospital these days, children are killing children, the 'vast improvements' in education are a joke to anyone properly educated and house prices are ridiculous when ordinary homes in the South East become liable for inheritance tax through no fault of their own to say nothing of the pensions fiasco that faces everyone in the private sector. Sadly I have no great faith in the Conservatives either though my dad would turn in his grave that I could consider them but anyone is better than Brown and his puppet in Scottish Labour. I would say my attitude, like a lot of the electorate is resigned apathy, even as a graduate in Politics/Economics (Glasgow) I no longer even want to vote. That says it all I feel utterly impotent to protect myself and my family from this illiberal, tax grabbing excuse for a government. Just get off my back and out of my purse and leave us alone, we are the people who support the lucrative non-jobs in the public sector. We don't want classroom assistants instead of teachers; nurse practitioners instead of doctors and Community Support Officers instead of police. All these people help but they should never be a cheap replacement for the real thing. I think a large part of the 'Brown Bounce' is sheer relief from the hysteronics of Blair. Funny though he was there being grave after the floods and the failed bombing attempts but where was he when the markets crashed, as usual nowhere to be seen, whatever the polls say I do not believe Brown is electable in middle England.

Ted Harvey said...

Yes... well, as another 'Scot' with bona fide working class origins credentials I want offer a few observations.

Carol, I feel for you, but the constituencies of old Labour power bases have long gone - mainly as part of the Western driven progress of neo-liberalism (from which a lot of old Tory values and purposes also suffered a death from. I don’t think that this was the ‘fault’ of old Labour, other than a failure of intellect – it was a consequence of global trends.

Now, the arrogance of no-longer-New Labour based on power granted by a 'broken' representative electoral system and the corruption of being too long in power just renders them no different from the other players in the UK party political game.

On Inheritance Tax, Brown’s advisors may well be happy to see Cameron run with a 'abolish it for all' campaign. Thus leaving the door open for a later Brown message of radical reform that will return it to its previous job of targeting the well and super well-off. This could be positioned as a message of "see, Labour is for fairness and protecting the majority of people who are less well-off whereas those big bad Tories just want to let their rich friends off the hook".

Brown has few discernible significant problems with middle England that I can see, to my admitted surprise. Although I accept that there is a broader ‘Scottish or UK question’ that some English quarters seem to be drumming up. What seems to be coming apparent is the vacuous emptiness of Blair - evidenced by the fact that that he has virtually disappeared of the public screen since his tawdry, overdue departure. I always though that his supposed hold over middle England was latterly a much over rated thing. The fact is, that some long time previously much of middle England stopped buying the line that he was a ‘straight’ or trustworthy kind of guy.

I suspect that Cameron's 'push-pull' dilemma arises because in his attempts to internally reconfigure the party he was not preceded by a Tory version of Kinnock. Without the groundwork reforms carried out by Kinnock I think that any leadership victory by Blair after Smith would have severely split, possibly terminally, the Labour Party. Or at least an unreconstructed Gordon Brown would have taken over and I think the Tories would have been back in the running as serious contenders for continuing in Government. Maybe another weakness for Cameron is that he has an impossible task of discovering/inventing a powerful new dialogue. This would, on the one hand, convince the electorate that the Tory Party really has changed; but he does not know yet what into. On the other hand, the dialogue somehow also persuades the internal Tory Party that it must change; but without having anything to offer it as a substitute for their old and obsolete policy comfort blankets.

Blair was able to say to the country that ‘the latter consequences of what Thatcher did to the Tory Party are so awful I can offer a competence untainted alternative; whilst saying to the Labour Party ‘after endless being in Opposition I can win you power’. So long as Brown does not split his Party or become a lame-duck PM Major he blanks out those possibilities for Cameron… will it turn out that Brown is smooth operator?

Snafu said...

Carol, an excellent comment. I'm totally in agreement...

It get's even worse now that George O is promising to match Labour spending in the first three years!