More than a one-night stand

30 May 08
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY | The early impressions were positive. The first date went well and even the day trip to Crewe was surprisingly jolly. But now David Cameron is on his second date with the voters and is — to coin a phrase — looking to close the deal.

The early impressions were positive. The first date went well and even the day trip to Crewe was surprisingly jolly. But now David Cameron is on his second date with the voters and is — to coin a phrase — looking to close the deal.

The Tory leader has earned some passionate clinches from the voters but now he needs to make sure that come election night, he will not be left on the psephological doorstep.

He certainly has a fair wind. His rival for the public’s affection is looking rather ragged at the moment. To stretch this metaphor for one more sentence, the public is beginning to sense that all it once saw as attractive about Gordon Brown was only superficial.

Instead of being solid, sensible and sincere, the prime minister is seen as dithering and duplicitous. Forgivably, he also seems rather calculating; unforgivably, he seems surprisingly bad at his calculations.

Of course, the political climate changes more frequently and more furiously these days. The media that once looked down on a public with a three-minute attention span now has little more itself. It will take a lot for media interest to sustain itself on two years of Tory success stories without getting bored.

However, the media wind has clearly turned — but for all his subsequent tacking, the prime minister has been unable to recapture it. The signs are now that he may never be able to do so.

The script has been written. Brown is a fag-end premier eking out a couple of years in Downing Street before succumbing to the blue tide set to wash over British politics.

One can take or leave the overheated talk of a putsch against Brown. No-one can yet know if he really will be toppled (it still feels unlikely) but whether he is or is not, both Labour and the Conservatives recognise one central new reality. For the first time, Cameron is master of his own destiny.

Labour might or might not replace its leader. Brown might or might not repair his own standing — but the government has now lost the voters’ ear. For the first time in more than a decade they are listening to and looking at the Conservatives. If Cameron continues to get his strategic decisions right, he will succeed in ousting this government.

But while controlling your own destiny is undoubtedly the best position for a political party to be in, it does carry certain challenges. In many ways Cameron’s achievements thus far have been the easy part. The task has been defining his party against its old image and against the government. Voters now know what the Tories are not. Cameron will now have to tell them what the Conservatives are, knowing as he does this that each clarification closes as many doors as it opens.

The Tory leader is rightly resisting the demands — not least from his own Right wing — for a detailed menu of policies. There is no advantage to this. The public will ignore them. But what he must do is give voters some sense of what he is about, some idea of his inner core so that they feel they can trust him to handle the problems they cannot yet foresee.

Voters knew Tony Blair would invest in public services. They knew he was economically sane and he would not cane them with income tax rises. They believed he would not be soft on crime. Labour’s famous five pledges were totemic and often vague but they gave voters a clear sense of what a Labour government might be about.

Voters want to understand what goes on in Cameron’s soul. When they looked at Margaret Thatcher or Blair they understood that these were leaders who would stand tall in adversity. The Tory leader has yet to assure them on this score.

Cameron needs an equivalent, a small handful of clear directions. They do not need to be too specific or detailed. They can be pretty similar to Labour’s pledges — and who would bet against them being similar?

Cameron’s Conservatives will restore economic stability; he will offer a couple of headline measures on crime — perhaps youth crime —which suggest he will be tough on yobs; there will be a pledge on defence and security (one that combines strength with distance from the US — unless of course it is an Obama-led US, in which case all previous bets are off). There will be something to suggest better schools and hospitals — but an improvement that does not simply cry out for endless sums of extra investment.

Blair promised smaller class sizes, shorter NHS waiting lists, a fast-track punishment scheme for young offenders, and a strong and stable economy. The voters understood that this was a government that shared their priorities. Cameron’s task is to find a similar number of measures that speak to the same need in voters, polished up for the modern problems faced today.

The voters have looked at Cameron and are ready to be persuaded by him. But that does not mean they are persuaded yet. The threshold beckons but Cameron is not yet over it.

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