Nick Wood: Cameron must tackle the Brownite glacier that threatens to engulf him (and then give voters some reasons to vote Conservative)
Former Times journalist Nick Wood was a media adviser to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. He now runs Media Intelligence Partners.
Politicians face two key imperatives – to be right and to be popular. David Cameron’s biggest mistake has been to elevate popularity over being right.
He has become a political fashion victim, striking attitudes calculated to appeal to the chattering classes who dominate the Westminster village. But fashion is by definition ephemeral. During the dying days of the disintegrating Blair regime, it mattered little that Cameron was to be seen parading his concern about climate change by posing with huskies in the Arctic or warning about the perils of chocolate oranges. But while he fretted about distant reefs he failed to spot the more immediate threat posed by the shift in the political weather from Blair to Brown.
A big chill has descended upon the Conservatives, triggered by Brown’s eclipse of the tawdry glitz of the Blair era and the advent of “serious” politics with a socially conservative wrapping.
Cameron’s quest for popularity – his ‘Hug a Hoodie” phase – has had a doubly damaging effect. He has dismayed his natural supporters but he has also made himself appear lightweight and insubstantial alongside the Stakhanovite Brown.
Cameron must start to campaign for what is right and stop worrying about whether the BBC and The Guardian will judge it popular – a lot of the time they won’t.
By demonstrating that he is prepared to fight for what he believes in – and what his supporters believe in – he will at least start to improve his ratings and reputation in the leadership stakes. He will gain respect, even among people who don’t agree with him, because he will be perceived to be sincere. His biggest handicap as he anxiously contemplates the prospect of an autumn election is that Brown is viewed by the public as strong and as capable of leading the country through difficult times.
Let’s leave policies to Cameron. Suffice it to say his position on tax is muddled, his position on reform of health and education is too timid, and his profile in areas such as youth crime, Europe, immigration and waste of public money is almost invisible. He needs to do something about all of them fast.
But first he has to tackle the Brownite glacier that threatens to engulf him and his party.
Brown has brought off an extraordinary coup. Despite being the chief domestic architect of the last 10 years – 10 years in which billions have been poured into to public services to no avail, violent crime has rocketed, gangs of feral kids have terrorised the middle classes, taxes have rocketed, border controls have collapsed, bureaucracy has spiralled (£167 billion a year spent on quangos – seven times more than 1997) and pensions have withered – he appears to have persuaded the media and the public that Blair’s disasters have been remedied overnight.
So the first thing Cameron must do is to launch a campaign – to run right through September – to demonstrate that nothing has changed: that the government the public viewed with distaste verging on contempt under Blair is the same government under Brown. “Same old Labour, same old Gordon” should be the Tory refrain from now on and the counter-attack should be backed by facts and figures showing that beyond a bit of window-dressing (like scrapping the super-casino) Brown is the no-change option. He should certainly nail Brown over his u-turn on a referendum on the EU Constitution.
He also needs to inject some passion into his campaigning. He needs to convey a real sense of anger about the failures of the Blair-Brown regime and a determination to put things right. He needs to put across a clear picture of how things would be different under a Conservative administration to counter the growing impression (among Conservatives as much as the public in general) that no one knows what he stands for.
Iain Duncan Smith’s “Breakthrough Britain” report with its 200 recommendations on mending our broken society offers him a way forward – a way of generating a sense of moral outrage about the state of our society and the need for tough but practical solutions. Cameron badly needs a sense of mission, staking his leadership on a crusade to rescue the underclass from the liberal ideology that has betrayed them. And this way he might secure the respect and support of floating and uncommitted voters.
But even that is not enough. How is Cameron going to motivate his core voters? How is he going to get them off the sofa (or out of the office) on polling day? What reasons is he going to give them for voting Conservative? He will have to relearn some old Tory tunes and quick. It is just a pity he has scorned them quite so vehemently in the past.
The beauty of politics is its unpredictability. Brown may funk an autumn election giving the Tories time to regroup, or events may intervene to destroy him. The challenge for Cameron is to confront his opponent, deny him the mantle of change and to articulate a mission that will energise the Tory tribe and the uncommitted alike.
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