Telegraph’s 6-month verdict on Cameron: better than Hague, worse than IDS

by Stephen Tall on June 7, 2006

Today’s Torygraph has a fascinating article by Prof Anthony King putting into context how the last seven Labour and Tory opposition leaders have fared in the polls in their first six months in charge.

It might just give some hyper-Tories, convinced David Cameron is about to lead their party to a great election victory, some pause for thought.

It shows that Labour’s opposition leaders have performed best – though for both Neil Kinnock and John Smith it also indicates what a parlous condition their party was in when they first took up the reins.

(Peter, over at Liberal Review’s Apollo Blog, yesterday noted the surprising similarities in the way Mr Kinnock’s early performance as Labour leader was judged, compared with initial perceptions of Mr Cameron today.)

Tony Blair, as befits the most talented politician of his generation, leads the way. That he boosted his party’s support by 10% in his first 24 weeks is all the more startling given Labour was consistently polling at over 40% under his predecessor.

Mr Blair was a phenomenon, albeit one who benefited from extraordinarily propitious circumstances. His transformation of Labour eviscerated the Tories. Mr Cameron has, as yet, done next-to-nothing to earn his own self-awarded soubriquet of the ‘heir to Blair’.

The headline I gave this post is, of course, accurate but unfair (’tis the mark of a blogger). There is no doubt that Mr Cameron has boosted his party beyond anything that either William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith achieved. He has self-consciously set out to re-position the Tory party. As Prof King relates, “Not surprisingly, voters are bemused. Thousands are not quite sure they can believe their eyes.”

His real success is in at least enabling the Tories to get a fair hearing from those people, both in the media and the real world, who might once have dismissed anything that issued forth from a Tory leader’s mouth.

But this will only get him so far. The phrase, ‘Clause IV moment’ has, perhaps, become too much of a cliché: every political leader now looks to ‘do a Blair’, and accomplish something that is both bold and substantial, which signals strongly a real change in direction. But that should not lessen the importance of achieving just such a moment. Mr Cameron’s best effort so far was little more than a bit of not-so-nifty marketing bullshit.

Of course he has no need to sit down today and write the next Tory Party manifesto. But that does not mean he will long be able to get away with mouthing Hallmark platitudes such as there is “more to life than money”. It may be helping to keep his party united, and his popularity relatively high – but he is simply storing up trouble for the days of reckoning ahead.

He needs to be able to answer, clearly and concisely: ‘What would a Tory Britain be like?’

And when he does answer that, then we will see of what sort of stuff Mr Cameron is made. We will find out if his currently loyal troops will stay so even if he dares not utter the shibboleths, Europe, immigration and tax cuts. And we will see what the British public really makes of Mr Cameron as our next-but-one Prime Minister.