Karma Cameron

by Stephen Tall on April 18, 2006

I’m a man without conviction
I’m a man who doesn’t know
How to sell a contradiction

So sang Boy George and Culture Club on tonight’s Labour Party local election broadcast.

I think it’s safe to say Labour are pretty pleased with their ‘Dave the Chameleon’ campaign: it has spawned not only tonight’s show, but also a website, a blog (that’s an ‘internet diary’, if you’re a Telegraph reader), a podcast and mobile ring-tones. It’s a real multi-media, cross-platform political sledging.

Some have likened this to the Tories’ (failed) attempt to taint Tony Blair with the infamous ‘Demon Eyes’ poster – indeed, the Torygraph portrays it as a major bitch-slap: ‘Labour labels Cameron a reptile’.

I think it’s more canny than that. Depicting ‘Dave’ as an ineffectual, inexperienced, wishy-washy, crowd-pleaser will, Labour hopes, make a negative of the very attributes Mr Cameron is aiming to present: that he is a young, fresh-faced, moderate pragmatist. Translating Mr Cameron into a benign cartoon character feeds the nice-but-dim Tory Boy image that is the Conservative leader’s weak flank. (By contrast, the Tories’ ‘satanic’ attacks on Mr Blair were ludicrously OTT, and pointlessly vindictive.)

Will it work? Who knows? Mr Cameron’s real success so far is that the voters still do not know what to make of him. Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard all recorded small positive ratings in the early months of their leadership of the Conservatives – primarily because most voters suspended their judgments until they had seen them in action. The more known they became, the more voters disliked them.

Here’s the average of the Mori satisfaction ratings for the last four Tory leaders in their first three months:

William Hague: 18% (Satisfied), 22% (Dissatisfied) = -4% (Net satisfaction)
Iain Duncan Smith: 20%, 17% = +3%
Michael Howard
: 26%, 20% = +6%
David Cameron
: 31%, 17% = +14%

And here’s their final net satisfaction ratings as leaders:

William Hague = -22%
Iain Duncan Smith = -27%
Michael Howard = -20%

Mr Cameron has made a better start than his three predecessors: the question is, can he maintain it? His pre-Christmas honeymoon was accidentally interrupted by the Lib Dems’ leadership travails, which rather stole Mr Cameron’s thunder. By the time the media turned its attention away from Sir Menzies and co., Mr Cameron was no longer the novelty he once had been.

The combination of his notorious ‘flip-flop’ gaffe at Prime Minister’s Questions – followed by an under-whelmingly over-shrill Budget reply, a hesitant response to the ‘Cash for Peerages’ row, and stuttering opinion poll ratings – has served only to increase the pressure. Having risen without trace, the expectations of Mr Cameron among his party colleagues and the commentariat has been commensurately higher.

Mr Cameron’s conundrum is this…

To woo back moderate, centrist voters – who either remain loyal to New Labour, or else have moved to the Lib Dems – he must show that he is a caring, sharing sensitive kinda guy: hence the risibly inane injunction to Tories to show their ‘green’ credentials by picking up a piece of litter every day.

But to prove that the Tories have changed – and that he is not the only nice guy in the Tory village – he must take on his party and win, just as Neil Kinnock faced down Militant, and Mr Blair junked Clause IV. So far, though, Mr Cameron has shied away from confronting his party in anything more than the vaguest, voguest terms.

If he continues down this path of least resistance, he will become vulnerable to a pincer attack from Labour and the Lib Dems: that he is a weak and opportunistic leader controlled by his unchanged, unpleasant party.

Mr Cameron has to work out how to sell that contradiction, and fast.