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Stephan Shakespeare: What could go wrong with Project Cameron?

Stephan Shakespeare is founder and CEO of YouGov.

Project Cameron is going extremely well. Being a pollster I am naturally cautious about predicting long-term changes on the basis of recent poll fluctuations, but certainly the Conservative revival seems to be establishing itself and now threatens to break above its 40% ceiling. So, as I was asked by a leading ‘project member’ yesterday, “What could go wrong? What should we be watching out for?”

I don’t think there are many worries on the policy front. For myself, I would prefer a more robust message on tax and public service reform, but I don’t pretend for a moment that Cameron’s popularity depends on these or any other policy areas. Most voters are trying to choose the leader who they can trust to make the right decisions; in these days of careful consensus on most matters, voters are not wasting too much effort assessing manifestos.

David Cameron has significant appeal as open-minded and tolerant, friendly and caring, focused and decisive, modern and successful. So long as the public see him this way, and see his party in reasonable harmony with him, then short of an economic crisis, which makes all predictions trickier, it’s difficult to see what can stop his ascent.

But there is a danger, and it was exemplified in the cycling-with-chauffeur episode. If the public get any sense that David Cameron might not be what he seems, then the engines could stall. That is what is behind the ‘Chameleon’ campaign by Labour – an attempt to undermine Cameron by saying, ‘yes, he seems nice enough, but none of it is real’.

We know from YouGov’s ‘Big Brother’ research five years ago that what matters most to that audience is authenticity. BBs choose people they think are ‘real’, not necessarily people they agree with (remember when a Bible-hugging 30-year-old virgin from the Orkney Islands won? The audience didn’t identify themselves with those characteristics, but with his obvious comfort being genuinely himself, without ‘side’). And the BB audience is important, because it is most like the socially-engaged but unpolitical segment of the electorate that Cameron must reach. They turned off Blair not because of his policies, not even because Iraq went wrong, but because they felt he hadn’t been straight with them.

So David Cameron’s biggest challenge is to be true to what he appears. In politics, that’s hard. With a few clever media-savvy consultants, manipulating one’s image can be relatively easy. But making it real, with all the jolts and crises and horrible choices that politics will present him with over the next few years, is another matter. Politics provides constant demands to make bad compromises, to go for the temporary fix, to play tricks. For my own part, I was concerned when I heard Cameron talking about business and sounding more like a spokesman for a CSR consultancy than someone who truly understood. It seemed too much about ‘positioning’, too little about helping the real economy. ‘Positioning’ and ‘message’ are obviously vital in modern politics – but they can also be one’s downfall if they are not welded to and underlying truth.

But that’s just my own beef, and as a businessman I obviously have my own agenda. That’s the trouble – all of us have our own agendas, and you can’t possibly amalgamate them all into one lovely manifesto that makes everyone happy. The solution is to be someone people can trust. Someone who respects them. Someone we can trust to be on the side of the people, not on the side of the party hacks. And on that front, so far so good.

Stephan Shakespeare on David Cameron's first 100 days


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