Cameron needs Growth, Grit and Grip
By Tim Montgomerie
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There's not many times that you wake up and are genuinely shocked by the news. This morning's by-election result from Bradford West is one such occasion. Without any knowledge of the seat I'm not going to rush to interpret George Galloway's landslide victory but over the next few days, weeks and months all of the big parties are going to have to ask some searching questions about how they lost such a seat in such spectacular fashion. Given Labour have held the seat since 1974 the biggest questions are going to have to be answered by Ed Miliband.
What Mr Galloway's victory will do is wipe Cameron's troubles off the frontpages - at least temporarily. This morning the Tory leader is greeted with another set of bad newspaper headlines - this time focusing on his administration's handling of the petrol dispute. Over the last ten days the Government has been hit by controversy after controversy. There's been the 50p issue. The granny tax. The pasty tax. Minimum alcohol pricing. The Peter Cruddas tapes. And the mis-steps on the petrol crisis.
Taken together they've fed a sense that (a) the government's economic policies aren't working; (b) the government is detached from the gritty concerns of ordinary people and (c) Cameron isn't gripping events. In other words the Government is lacking growth, grit and grip.
There is nothing fatal about the last week. It is, I would suggest, the political equivalent of a mild heart attack. If the victim of the attack doesn't mend his ways the next attack will be more serious and eventually it could be fatal. If, however, the patient sees the attack as a wake up call it's not too late to live happily ever after.
Here are three big things for Mr Cameron to address...
Get the big narrative right. If the Government doesn't define its project its opponents will. The Big Society has failed as a political description (although not as an idea). In the absence of a compelling alternative account of its purpose the Coalition is being defined by its cuts programme and, as David Davis warned, by a sense that it is remote from working people. I suggest the big theme for the Coalition should be economic renewal in an age when the world is changing fast and new economic competitors are ready to take our jobs and markets. In other words we are, as always, the rescue party - rescuing Britain from the mess that Labour has left behind. If we invest in education and infrastructure now - if we trim the fat from the state and lower our tax burden we can flourish in this new world. We must say that the Conservative Party is the only party that will take the tough decisions that will rescue Britain from decline and all that that would mean for incomes and employment. We chose austerity as our main economic message when we should have chosen growth. William Hague needs to give a landmark, scene-setting speech on the global economic challenges. We need big reports and conferences on the state of the nation and our readiness to compete in the world. If people understand the extent of the economic challenge they'll buy the party with the remedy. We then need to administer the remedy. The moves on 50p, localised pay bargaining and airport capacity are all welcome but they are happening dangerously late in the political cycle. Too much Government energy has been devoted to what should have been second term projects like NHS and Lords reform.
Choose gritty not glitzy modernisation. Too much of Cameron's modernisation project has been about appealing to metropolitan elites rather than the striving class - to Guardian readers rather than Sun readers. We've emphasised climate change when we should have been emphasising energy prices. We've worried if CCTV threatens our civil liberties when the public is more concerned about anti-social behaviour. We've seen gay marriage as a Clause IV moment when actually it's about Tory attitude to income and wealth. We've worried about the number of women in the Cabinet when the focus should have been the number of northerners and people born on the wrong side of the tracks. In today's Telegraph Neil O'Brien of Policy Exchange has important things to say about what he calls Modernisation 2.0. We cannot allow the Lib Dems to continue to own the Coalition's pro-strivers policies. Promising to re-introduce the 10p tax band could be one flagship policy for Gritty Conservatism.
Bring the Conservative family together. Cameron has never given the impression that he particularly likes the Conservative family and I don't just mean Tory MPs. I also mean centre right newspapers and think tanks. The last week has been notable for the hostility of newspapers that were once loyal to the Conservatives and also silence from Tory MPs. Few voices have been raised in Team Cameron's defence. Many opinion-forming columnists never get a call from senior Tories. Cameron has appointed Praetorian guards rather than independent thinkers to the very important roles of party chairman and Prime Minister's PPS. Downing Street is stuffed with civil servants rather than aides with political intelligence. The ridiculous limit on SpAds has undermined Cabinet ministers' ability to master their Departments. The absence of an orthodox Chief of Staff at Number 10 means that these problems are not addressed. Despite Fiona Hodgson's defence of the existing Party Chairmen (and I accept her distinction between the Chairman and CEO of CCHQ roles) it's time to move Sayeeda Warsi to another job. We need a Tory Chairman with (1) the ability to rethink the party's election strategy, (2) fight for the party in the media, and (3) who has the confidence of Cameron and Osborne. I've suggested Michael Gove. Cameron needs to appoint new Parliamentary Private Secretaries. He needs a Department of External Relations inside Downing Street. He needs to change the way the whips office works so that it's more developmental. He needs to bring some leaders of the Right into his operation. He needs a tabloid brain within his inner circle. He needs to lead the party and to listen to all of its members. He needs a party that embraces all of the Conservative talents.
If the last week serves as a wake up call it will have been worthwhile. I'm not so much worried by the 10% Labour lead in the latest YouGov opinion poll as by the -34% approval rating. That suggests that we're very beatable if our opponents get their act together. That looks unlikely so long as Ed Miliband is getting bloody noses in so-called Labour heartlands from Scotland to Bradford. Nonetheless UKIP is steadily rising in the polls. The Sun has turned against us. There's a feeling abroad that we're not on the side of ordinary people. It's those trends that we need to reverse and, fortunately, time is still on Cameron's side.