How Cameron can show more ♥ to his party
By Tim Montgomerie
In his latest Saturday column for the Daily Mail, Peter Oborne argues that David Cameron's relationship with his party is his Achilles Heel. He's right. The Cameron-Tory relationship may look good at the moment. ConHome surveys of grassroots members show Cameron, the Coalition in general and policies, in particular, all enjoying strong support. But attitudes towards Cameron have been volatile throughout his five year leadership. Much support appears to be conditional rather than instinctive.
It's also true that many Tories hate him and I mean hate. Many others have lost respect. Cameron was able to ride roughshod over criticisms of his strategy when he enjoyed big opinion poll leads but his election campaign changed that. He added just 3% to one of the Tories' worst ever election percentages and he added those three points in almost perfect electoral conditions. The overwhelming majority of Tory candidates think the campaign was poor.
Many suspect Cameron is in it for himself rather than for the party. The vote on AV is at the centre of the doubts. Cameron is seen as ready to trade the security of his Downing Street tenure for changes to the electoral system that will make it harder for the Conservative Party to ever govern alone again. Cameron doesn't need the loyalty of his party now but he may need it one day as a protection against the volatility of public opinion. Opinion now moves much more quickly across the political world. Just ask Kevin Rudd who went from one of Australia's most popular PMs to being on his party's backbenches within six months. Obama has gone from record high to dismal approval ratings in eighteen months. Merkel's honeymoon with Guido Westervelle's FDP ended almost as soon as it began.
Here are ten ways in which Team Cameron can build a deeper relationship with the Conservative Party....
More courtesy. One of the greatest weapons in a leader's armoury is the thank you note. Last week Martin Kettle told the story of how David Cameron left a thank you note for Chequers staff. I'd be interested to know where Mr Kettle got the story. David Cameron is not well known inside the Conservative Party for his courtesies. One Tory MP who did not make it into government because of the Coalition deal told me last week that he has heard nothing from Cameron. Random enquiries to some of the other of the 37 MPs and peers who served Cameron in opposition but didn't win ministerial positions suggests none received the kind of handwritten note that is worth its weight in gold in terms of long-term relationships.
Establish an External Relations function. Too many leading think tank heads, opinion formers and bloggers have next to no contact with the Tory leadership. The White House - like all good political operations - carefully nurtures relationships with all key stakeholder groups. Cameron needs such a Unit for relations with his party and the wider conservative movement.
Appoint some Right-wingers to head reviews etc. We've had a succession of left-wing appointees to government commissions. Some of them are to be welcomed - Frank Field and John Hutton, for example - and some leave me scratching my head - Will Hutton. There has been little sign that Right-of-centre talents are getting interesting appointments. That should change.
Practise some forgiveness. Like the External Relations recommendation this is not a new thought but the Cameron regime has a reputation for locking the door to people who fall out of favour. It has found no way back for talented people like Patrick Mercer, Mark Field and David Davis. Party solidarity would be helped if the leadership showed it could practice reconciliation.
Honour natural as well as floating supporters. It was great that Cameron held a reception for gay Britons but where, asked Paul Goodman, is the reception for churchleaders? In a thousand ways like this Cameron should be honouring traditional as well as new supporters. No voters should be taken for granted.
End media favouritism. The best way of communicating to Tory members is still through the media. The Telegraph, Mail, Spectator and blogosphere are vital in this but they, like much of the party, don't get much love. There is an almost universal feeling in the Lobby that The Sun gets very special treatment from Andy Coulson. Speaking personally I have not had one single story from Downing Street since Cameron's election. Zilch. That's a huge contrast with the relationship I have with individual Cabinet ministers and, for example, Boris Johnson's office. My experience is not untypical.
Institutional means for meeting ministerial teams. Shadow ministers - below shadow cabinet rank - complained that they never had opportunity in opposition to meet David Cameron and 'chat things through'. Such meetings, now in government, should be institutionalised.
Recognise that Brady & Co are in charge of part of his house. Cameron may not have always had an easy relationship with Graham Brady and the other Right-leaning officers of the 1922 Committee but they are now powerful figures in the party. Last week Graham Brady launched an independent review of the Tory election campaign. ConservativeHome hopes and expects the Parliamentary Conservative Party to undertake policy-making, not least through backbench committees. Cameron needs to make his peace and my understanding is that a lunch he held with the '22 officers, last week, went very well.
A more dynamic CCHQ. The conservatives.com website has gone to sleep since the election. It is rarely updated and Sayeeda Warsi has issued just one video message since she became party chairmen. There's always a great danger that party machines shrivel up when its leading members start to rely on the government machine. It's a danger that must be avoided.
Cameron needs to make it clear that he wants a Conservative government. There is widespread suspicion about Cameron's plans for the future. Is he planning a Liberal-Tory merger? He needs to admit election mistakes and display a resolve to build a much better machine. He needs to show that he wants the Conservatives to govern alone in the years to come.