Saturday, March 21, 2009

Labour's silver lining

Is David Cameron ready to govern? Not until he can fill the policy vacuum at the heart of his party's programme. Here's today's Journal column.

Amidst all the doom and gloom that has come to characterise Gordon Brown’s troubled premiership over the past 20 months, there has been one small consistent chink of light for Labour.

While opinion polls continue to show it on course for a catastrophic election defeat next year, there is one regular poll finding that has continued to give the stricken party hope.

It is that, despite a lead stretching to around 20 percentage points, there remains a prevailing public consensus that the Tories and their leader David Cameron are not quite ready for government.

To his credit, Mr Cameron is perfectly well aware of this - which is what made his comments ahead of a big speech on public spending on Thursday so potentially significant.

“The election is far from won and I still hold to the belief that governments don’t just lose elections, oppositions must deserve to win them with a positive mandate for change,” he wrote in a magazine article.

He said that the Tories must not simply “sit back and let the government unravel,” but advocate a “radical and ambitious” new approach.

It is a moot point as to whether Mr Cameron is actually historically right about this. Very few oppositions actually “win” elections and when power changes hands in the UK, it is usually because the government has made a mess of things.

But taking his cue from Tony Blair in 1997, Mr Cameron is surely right to recognise the dangers of complacency, even when all the signs are that you are heading for a landslide.

So why is it that the public has so far proved resistant to Mr Cameron’s undoubted charms? Why is it that even though the polls show Labour as wildly unpopular, they also show the public are unconvinced by the Tories?

Well, part of it is probably down to the fact that Mr Cameron appears at times to be far too slick for his own good.

He prides himself on being the “Heir to Blair” and in many respects he is, but the public isn’t necessarily ready to see another smooth-talking, snake oil salesman in Number 10 just yet.

The Old Etonian thing doesn’t really help either. While Mr Cameron and his shadow chancellor George Osborne have worked hard to project a modern image, their privileged background rightly or wrongly conjures up folk memories of the bad old Tories who thought they were born to rule.

But undoubtedly the biggest reason why Mr Cameron has failed the capture the public’s enthusiasm in the same way Mr Blair did prior to 1997 has been the huge vacuum at the heart of his party’s policy programme.

This has been demonstrated most graphically in the context of the recession, with Mr Brown successfully characterising the Tories as the “do nothing” party.

Okay, so it’s a bit rich coming from an ex-chancellor who did precisely nothing while City fat cats paid themselves obscene bonuses while the economy steadily went to hell in a handcart, but no matter.

It’s a charge that has by and large hit home, leaving Mr Cameron stuck with the label of a “laissez-faire” free market Tory at a time when the political consensus has moved decisively towards greater government regulation.

But it’s not just economic policy on which the Tory leader has been found wanting. Much of what he says about a whole host of issues is simply too vague to be taken seriously.

One of the big themes of Thursday’s speech was decentralisation – or “giving folks power over their lives” as Mr Cameron put it in a rather Dubya-esque way.

Yet there is no evidence that the Tory leader has any idea as to how he is going to do this, how he is going to resist the pressure to centralise and control that affects all governments to a greater or lesser degree.

On the contrary, the way in which he runs his own party suggests he is just as cabalistic in his approach to politics as Messrs Blair and Brown.

An illustration of the vacuity at the heart of the Tories’ “new localism” was provided by the launch of their new local government policy paper a month ago.

The centrepiece of this was a plan to give 12 big cities including Newcastle the right to bring in city mayors with the same kind of powers as London’s Boris Johnson.

The trouble with this idea is that it is neither new nor particularly local. Labour went down this road a decade ago, and most of the cities listed in the Tories’ policy paper were not interested.

The comparison with Mr Johnson is, in any case, absurd. London is a city of 8m people with 32 different boroughs. Creating a similarly powerful figure in the North-East could only be done by re-opening the regional governance debate.

Will any of this matter at the end of the day? Won’t Mr Cameron, despite what he himself says, be able to win the election simply on the back of Labour’s unpopularity?

Well, probably. The nearest comparison here is with 1979, when Margaret Thatcher won comfortably without having a fully-developed policy agenda largely because Labour was seen as incompetent.

But it will matter greatly in terms of the kind of government Mr Cameron will lead if he wins – and whether it too will culminate in failure and disillusionment.

The polls say the Tories are ready to win. Whether they are ready to govern, though, is an entirely different matter.

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1 comment:

Stephen Rouse said...

I suspect the policy vacuum is deliberate. Cameron is smart enough to know that the electorate is inconveniently much more liberal than many on the right would like to believe. Hague and Howard both ran on manifestos which read like Richard Littlejohn columns, and got trashed. Cameron, as author of the Howard manifesto, has clearly absorbed the lesson himself but dares not risk infuriating the traditional party base by moving to the centre.
Just look at the row over the 45p tax band. Osborne has the temerity to suggest it may not be a bad idea and up pops Boris Johnson, supported by The Telegraph, to say it will hurt all those City workers who are going to pull us out of recession (which is a bit like expecting the iceberg to fix The Titanic, but that's another story). Say what you like about Blair, at least he had the courage to take on his own party. Cameron knows there is a battle to be fought, and is ducking it.