Cameron: more Hague than Blair? How the Tory leader has lost sight of his strategy

That’s the question the Indy’s Steve Richards asks in a persuasively argued column today:

David Cameron’s leadership of his party is often compared with Tony Blair’s during the period up to the 1997 election. … The comparison is one of the most misleading in British politics. … [Cameron is heading] for the election leading a party that proposes tax cuts for the well-off and married couples, massive spending cuts whether or not Britain is out of recession, withdrawal from the social chapter and a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty. … The trajectory of Cameron’s leadership is much closer to another former leader. He might have tried to learn from the New Labour guidebooks on how to win elections, but inadvertently he has followed more closely the course adopted by one of his own recent predecessors. …

Both Hague and Cameron are outstanding parliamentary performers, witty and quick to exploit the weaknesses of political opponents. Both are calm under fire. Both started to shift their positions when they appointed press secretaries to advise them on the media. Amanda Platell urged Hague to adopt more right-wing and populist policies. Andy Coulson has sometimes advised Cameron to do the same on issues such as immigration, crime and tax cuts.

There are of course differences. Cameron is a warmer, more agile personality and has been able to assemble an incomparably stronger team. For nearly all his leadership he has been ahead in the polls, a success that creates confidence and means a less critical media. Tonally Cameron has a wider range, whereas at this stage of the parliament Hague was desperately seeking to retain the support of his core vote, worrying that the Conservatives could perform even worse than they had in 1997. Even so the similarities are much closer than those between Cameron and Blair en route to his 1997 landslide.

Of course, comparing leaders in this way is always, to some extent, false: each leader has to deal with circumstances unique to their time.

Most notably, Tony Blair had the advantage of taking over a party the extreme, unelectable wing of which was in retreat, and the moderate electable mainstream in the ascendant. by contrast, David Cameron has a serious disadvantage that he leads a party whose extreme, unelectable wing is the dominant force within the Tory party. Early attempts to stage a ‘Clause 4 moment’ to assert his supremacy over his party were soon abandoned, and Mr Cameron spends much of his time now appeasing and pacifying his party’s socially conservative right-wing.

There was a telling article – more telling than he intended – by the Spectator’s James Forsyth on the Coffee House blog last night:

… turning these [disappointing Tory poll] numbers around is, I suspect, going to require some policies that show us what David Cameron’s irreducible core is. Oddly enough, I don’t think these policies have to be particularly popular but they have to show the electorate that Cameron stands for something, that he isn’t just another say anything to win politician. Picking a fight on offering substantial recognition to marriage in the tax system might actually be a good strategy for Cameron in these circumstances. It would show that there are some things he will stand up for whatever the risks.

And here we see, in all its glory, the unreformed Tory right’s deep-seated desire to transmogrify Mr Cameron into William Hague. Once again, their argument centres round the idea that the public will respect unpopular policies because of their ideological purity – just as Mr ‘Notting Hill Carnival’ Hague was driven further and further to the right until he ended up desperately pleading with the public to ‘save the pound’ while most voters were more concerned with schools and hospitals.

It is – thankfully, for those of us who are not Tories – all too typical that the Tory party’s reaction to falling poll ratings is to leap for the idea that it’s because they’re not being Tory enough.

In common with everyone else, I have no actual knowledge why the Tories’ popularity is slipping. But I do have a theory: the Tories, and especially Mr Cameron, have lost sight of their strategy of detoxifying the brand.

There has been much self-reassuring talk in Tory circles in the last fortnight that the narrowing Tory poll lead is a good thing because it will counter any sense of complacency in the party. But the complacency is actually at the top of the party: it’s the complacency of the Tory leadership that they have done enough to convince the public the Tories have genuinely changed, and that it’s now safe again to revert to their true, Thatcherite type in order to unite the party.

What was once a depressingly effective Tory strategy of ‘love-bombing the Lib Dems’ – talk big on the environment, civil liberties and democratic reform while promising no policies – has been jettisoned in favour of throwing red meat to the right-wing (blaming ‘big government’ for the recession, and tax-breaks for marriage and millionaires). Thank God.

Instead of sticking to his guns, and determinedly staying the course in the moderate, centre-ground to reassure floating voters, Mr Cameron has felt it safe to shore up his core vote. In doing so, he has reminded those voters, who were slowly being won round to the notion that maybe this time it might be safe to vote Tory (and at the very least get rid of Labour and Mr Brown), that the party Mr Cameron leads is still the same old Tories.

Back in the summer I was one of those who was, I guess, fatalistically resigned to the prospect of a Tory government, even viewed the prospect with some curiosity. Having seen the Tories revert to stereotype at the mere sniff of victory, I now view the prospect with trepidation, and a clear sense that a Tory victory is something desperately to be avoided. For sure, I am not a floating voter. But I suspect that my gut-response is, at least in part, reflected in the Tories’ declining popularity.

No-one who’s observed Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Tory party this past four years can be in any doubt of his tactical nous. There is a very big question mark now over his ability to translate those short-term tactics into a long-term strategy. That proved to be William Hague’s downfall. It might still yet prove to be the un-doing of Mr Cameron.

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  • Excellent article. Agree totally.

  • Me too. The trouble for the tories is that Hague is the prime minister they really want, but the electorate will have nothing to do with him. It shows Cameron’s weakness that he’s letting the right take over. Even though they keep telling themselves they’re what the British people will vote for, they are losers, in every sense of the word.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Dec '09 - 8:48am

    The idea that Cameron was someone pushing his party towards the centre always seemed to me to be more the press deciding this was the story and reporting things this way than anything remotely resembling the truth. Of course, it depends on just what you mean by left-right, but in terms of defending establishment power and wealth, which I would say is the central definition of “right wing”, Cameron is an extreme right-winger, probably the most extreme right-wing leader the Conservative Party has had since Lord Salisbury. And he always has been.

    One thing we need to see is that the definition of “right-wing” has changed, and Cameron has moved with that change. It’s no longer about social conservatism because social conservatism no longer defends established wealth and privilege. So Cameron can appear to be moderate because he endorses a little liberalism – but only those aspects of liberalism entirely consistent with being a person whose sole real interest is the protection of the wealth and power of the new aristocracy. As ever with aristocracy, the claim is that these people are superior to everyone else – look at the bankers defending why they must have huge bonuses – so they must be rewarded handsomely and society will be better with these people to look up to doing their wonderful work of ruling us. As ever the threat is that because they control everything, if they are challenged they will wreak revenge and damage us all.

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Dec '09 - 9:49am

    The flicker in the polls may very well necessitate a change in the tactics by the Conservative leadership, but, because our own tactics have been determined by Tory success (measured by polls), we too shall have to review our tactics and presentation.

    The two most significant influences on our positioning to date have been:
    a) The public wanted change, Cameron had captured that ground, therefore to attack Cameron was to risk being seen as attacking change (and also opening us up to being branded as siding with Brown/Labour), and
    b) The Tories had convinced the media that cuts were necessary, therefore we had to go along with that line if we were to be both credible in the media and again avoid being branded as pro Brown/Labour,

    There were a number of weaknesses in the appreciation of this situation: There is more than one kind of change – politics doesn’t have to be about the pendulum – and the economic policy of fiscal and monetary stimulus was the right one.

    If, at least until June, the economy continues to be felt to be improving and money markets continue to be ready to finance the debt, we shall have betrayed our fundamental principles to back the wrong horse; gambling on gaining seats against Labour and leaving our ‘holds’ to their own devices.

    The tragedy of our positioning hereto is that it has demonstrated a fundamental lack of confidence resulting in our tactics being more driven by Brown and Cameron than by ourselves.

    It is time to be true to ourselves.

  • Martin Land 3rd Dec '09 - 9:56am

    Complete the following weel known phrase or saying….

    Kinnock is to Blair as
    Cameron is to …….

  • Bill le Breton 3rd Dec '09 - 11:05am

    I am sure you are right when you suggest that sustainability is the most important issue facing us here and throughout the world, but, when asked by Ipsos Mori what they see as the most important issues for Britain today, the general public answer in the following order:
    The Economy
    Crime Law and Order
    So, the watchword for this election remains: “It’s the Economy Stupid.” And coming a close second would you say it might be “Our broken society”?
    We have hitched our bandwagon to ‘change’ as defined by the Tories, and fiscal consolidation (cuts, because we have ruled out tax rises) as driven by the Tories.
    If, as Stephen argues above, the Tories are going to have to change their tactics, doesn’t that apply to us?

  • I think we need to be very careful about the extent to which the general public dissociate Cameron from his party. To a significant number of people he is his party, and the fluffy groundwork was done sufficiently long ago to ensure that it is now embedded in the collective consciousness. What this means is that any late shifts in perception about Cameron may not play through in time to have a significant effect.

    The key point here is that Cameron, regardless of what we think personally, has been very successful and we would be foolish to believe that he won’t continue to be (and plan accordingly).

  • David Allen 3rd Dec '09 - 2:17pm

    Good article. We should work to help the ordinary voter get the point that Steve Richards is making. The best way to do that is to remind him/her about events that will have stuck in his/her memory. So, we remember Hague visiting the Notting Hill carnival and posing with that ridiculous baseball cap, before turning back to the usual right-wing Toryism. And, we remember Cameron, playing at hug-a-hoodie and cycling ahead of his chauffeur, before turning back to the usual right-wing Toryism, and governing from Eton and Bullingdon. No change there, except a move further to the right.

  • David THORPE 3rd Dec '09 - 4:58pm

    I think one thing we are not in a position to do is to criticise cameron because of the school or university he went to.
    Yes, he went to Eton and Oxford.
    Nick Clegg went to Westminister and Oxford.
    And I think that its juvenile politics anyway.
    The economy will always be the number one issue for peopel, howvbere our USP must be the economic benfits of sustainaiblilty, the green economy jobs which need to be craeted, will provide the social goods required for a more sustainable britain, and the economic goods required for a more propserous britian. It isnt a matter of one or the other, its a matter of both, and of getting the message right.
    Labour are failing to do this by keeping both the issues very seperate, which engenders hostility among the public who think the issues are mutaually exclusive.
    Thw Toreis who dodnt really see sustainability as an issue.
    The Lib Dems can take a lead by showing how the issues are linked, and the solution is linked

  • David Allen 3rd Dec '09 - 6:01pm

    OK David, I went to Oxford too, as it happens. I didn’t join the Bullingdon. My wife doesn’t spend thousands on imitation off-the-peg dresses. Need I go on?

    You’re absolutely right to take the high ground and talk sustainability issues. However, people do like to look at the low ground as well, and, people are absolutely right in that instinct. It’s the personal, the body language, the life experience, that people use to judge a politician’s real character. Robert Maxwell’s champagne socialism, Gordon Brown’s inability to smile in a normal human way, Richard Nixon’s nervous anxiety, Adolf Hitler’s terrible angry resentment in all he said – these all give / gave an insight into real character and into how it was likely to affect action.

    Cameron knows the importance of presenting a favourable image of character, which is why he spends so much time with the nappy-changing, the cycling exhibition, the posing. If we believe that Cameron in reality has put himself there with the primary goal of defending wealth and privilege, it is right that we should present our own more accurate image of his character, and the influences that formed it.

  • I agree with David Allen. Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and David Rendel all went to Eton but they were all politicians with progressive views who, had they become prime minister, would clearly not have governed in such a way as to predominantly benefit their class. However pleasant Cameron may be as an individual it is clear that a Tory government led by him would mean a redistribution of power and wealth back into the hands of those who consider that their natural status in this world is to rule over the rest of us. That makes me sound very class conscious, but I have seen enough Tory governments in my lifetime to know who usually benefits from them. We should be using Osborne’s phrase “we are all in this together” to sow the seeds of doubt: does the average voter really believe that Cameron, Osborne and the rest of the Tory shadow cabinet are going to suffer from the cuts that the Tories will inflict on the rest of us when they get into power? And when I talk to people about the prospects for the coming year, as I often do, I always express my conviction that the Tories proposal to cut government debt quickly will tip us into a double dip recession, and that, it seems to me, is their area of biggest vulnerability, because people desperately want to believe that after a year or more of economic gloom, things are starting to get better.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '09 - 2:39pm

    While going to Eton and similar schools should not be an absolute bar to progression in politics, it should open up the question “Is this person really skilled, or have they got where they are through the family background one must have to get into such a school, and the contacts and hot-house education one gets from going to such a school”. After all, if Eton (or Westminster) were just “another school”, how come such a high proportion of their former pupils are in top places in politics, business, and indeed such professions as journalism and the law? Is it really the case that so many of the most the very intelligent and able people in the country go to these schools? Or just that they know their own, and their own know them and that propels them forward, on top of all the benefits they already had? Might it not mean that a rather mediocre figure comes across very well, reported as naturally the best person to lead … well whatever … because the manners and accent produced by having that sort of background are still assumed to be what is needed to be really top. This is maybe done subconsciously, but if you had the dress code and accent of a working class person but otherwise all the skills and knowledge of someone who went to Eton (or Westminster) would you do as well? Especially when so many journalists and commentators also come from this top public school background and just can’t seem to help thinking people like them are people who should be running things.

    I am afraid people with this sort of background often do disappoint once one gets to know them. They do come across as enormously confident and skilled, but deeper analysis suggests they’ve been hot-housed beyond their real deep skill level.

    I also find that people from such a privileged background really are quite clueless on how life for ordinary people really is. Even if they really do mean well, in so many little ways they just get things wrong, and it is so difficult to argue with them about why they are getting it wrong, because if you haven’t had the background to know struggle against such things as low income, lack of contacts, a culture of “know your place” and much else you really can’t see why simple nostrums – well, such as the current fashionable obsession with extreme free market economics – really won’t work as you think they would from your out-of-touch background.

    I am reminded of the story (I think it is apocryphal) of the schoolboy at Eton who was asked to write a short story on poverty. So he started off “Once there was a really poor family. The daddy was poor, the mummy was poor, even the butler was poor …”.

  • david thorpe 4th Dec '09 - 2:46pm

    I think Vince Cable has written in the past about one of the reasons he oleft the Labour party was that he wanted to send his children to a public school and thought that was mutually exclusive with being a socilsist,?
    ]Nick Clegg, much as I admire him and am glad he is the party leader, spent most of his life before politics, at univwersities, doing internships and etc, things which a majority of voters wouldnt have vere got the chance to do….yes Cameron is a Toff, Clegg is a sort of Toff as well…as IS harriet harman…….I frnakly dont care….mky interest is in whether they are compotent at running the country….I think Nick is the only party leader with the breath of vision to do that

  • “My point is that these people use their schools and universities as weapons. When all else fails suddenly Harrow or Eton or Oxford or Cambridge is casually dropped into the conversation as they are taught that it will open doors for them. Maybe it should open doors for them but the door must stay equally open for the next state educated redbrick university educated working class person too…”

    Oh dear. Another one falls into the trap of conflating Public Schools with Oxbridge.

    There is a fundamental difference – entry to the latter is by individual merit; entry to the former depends upon coming from a wealthy background.

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