Conservative Home

« Mohammed Amin: Islamophobia – a trap for unwary Muslims | Main | Charles Lewington: Cameron may get an Olympic bounce. But there's little precedent for it - if any »

Alistair Thompson: Cameron and Osborne should ditch the trendy nonsense and concentrate on being Conservatives

Alistair Thompson was Conservative candidate for West Bromwich East at the general election. He also runs Media Intelligence Partners with business partner Nick Wood, the former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

Screen shot 2012-07-26 at 15.57.55In 2007, David Cameron famously remarked that he was the heir to Blair.

This claim infuriated many within the Labour Party and meant that Gordon Brown had far less room wriggle room in distancing himself from the Blair years for fear of appearing to surrender the middle ground.

And perhaps there was some good evidence to support this claim. Certainly Mr Cameron has taken on his own party on a range of issues, not least his strategy of increasing the number of women MPs, supporting unproven green policies and increasing international aid.

But unlike Mr Blair, the Prime Minister has failed to realise when to stop poking his party in the eye, even when it is perfectly in tune with middle England. And this unhealthy obsession with constantly picking fights on issues that the vast majority of the public do not believe are a priority is taking its toll on the party machine.

Issues like House of Lords Reform and gay marriage are deeply unpopular with the majority of Conservative voters and party members.

Just look at the figures published in the Daily Mail today. When Mr Cameron became the Leader in 2005, the party membership stood at nearly 300,000. Just two years into his first Government this figure has fallen off a cliff, with membership at 130,000 and reportedly heading towards 100,000. Searching the internet, I have been unable to find a time, (post war), when this figure was lower.

This drop in support is being matched by a drop in donations from some of the party’s most loyal backers.

Then, and to the great annoyance of many of his own Party, the Prime Minister continues to give far too much ground to his Coalitions partners. Partly this is because of the terrible Coalition Agreement, which became a race to the bottom in policy terms. Sharing out pain in equal measure, instead of both sides giving ground on key red line issues.

For example, why on earth did the Lib Dems agree to hike tuition fees up to £9K a year? Not because the Conservative were strongly in favour. And how did Mr Cameron allow policies on immigration and reform of the hated Human Rights Act to be kicked into the long grass?

Simple in the race to the bottom rather than holding up the best policies, the approach to the coalition deal seems to have been: which policIes can we force upon the other party, which inflicts the most damage?

And having these flagship policies shelved has left such a huge policy vacuum at the heart of the operation thatthere is no sense of direction from the centre as the party lurches from one seemingly isolated piece of legislation to another.

Don't get me wrong, we have some brilliant secretaries of state. Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove have set out ambitious reforms that we can all support - making work pay and restoring academic rigour into our creaking education system.

Further down the Government team, there are some exceptional ministers too. Who can deny the stunning success of John Hayes and his apprenticeship programme, with thousands of young people taken on and trained by companies all over the UK.

But with no clear direction, these successes seem more down to the individual Ministers than the Government as a whole.

And while Mr Cameron is having a rough time, George Osborne is having an even worse time. Once feted as a brilliant strategist, but less good at the presentational stuff than his boss: the whole nation thought he was the man to fix the broken economy and clear up the appalling mess left to us by Labour.

But while the rhetoric was good the delivery has been, well, disappointing. The economy is still on the QE life support machines, with the faintest of pulses. Borrowing continues to grow. Banker bashing has become our favourite national pastime, but there is still no corresponding rise in support for manufacturing. And the civil service continue to do their best to embarrass the Government by bringing back policies that even the hapless Mr Brown rejected.

Most worryingly for Mr Osborne, even when he does deliver a popular policy it quickly becomes a PR disaster and like Gordon Brown he disappears below the surface. Just look at his recent decision to defer the increase in fuel duty. This should have been cheered by all, but poor communications and even poorer prep for Chloe Smith led to that now infamous car crash live on Newsnight.

No wonder Conservative MPs are openly joking that Mr Osborne has become the heir to Brown.

So what should team Cameron and Osborne be doing to reverse this decline?

Well, firstly they. must stop picking fights with their party and start to find ways to scrap or at the very least kick into the long grass policies that Conservative voters hate and their own back benches say are daft.

Secondly, they need to strengthen their policy team, especially in Downing Street. And yes this includes trying to bring on board more special advisers - people who are both talented and have real experience.

I am still at a complete loss to understand, why Matthew Elliot and Tim Montgomerie, to name just a couple, are not on board. Matthew is probably the best political campaigner in this country and Tim is probably one of the most intuitive and politically astute Conservatives of the last 30 years.

Thirdly they badly need to rebuild the media operation. Since the loss of Andy Coulson, there seems to be a complete lack of anyone, either in touch with the lobby, or who understand the genesis of a news story. This means that the Government is far too frequently behind the curve of the media cycle.

Fourthly, it is vital to sort out the man management within the Commons, recognising that there is a great pool of talent: instead of treating most MPs with a sort of mild contempt they should be harnessed. For example, why are the likes of Mark Prisk and Brian Binley not being consulted about small business policy? Or, people like Penny Mordaunt on care of the elderly? For every policy area there is a back bencher with real experience and the 2010 intake has strengthened the pool of talent.

Finally, they must develop a clear narrative. This narrative, can’t simply be deficit reduction, it must be positive and link policy successes together. And it must give a clear direction as at the moment. A failure to be either Thatcherite, or radical by embracing City Reform, by splitting the banks etc, means they look like ditherers.

And if the leadership doesn't take these steps our poll ratings will continue to slide and while the current Labour lead is soft, it will certainly harden and even with the boundary changes, the next PM will be Ed Miliband with an outright majority.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.