Cameron: more Hague than Blair? How the Tory leader has lost sight of his strategy

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2009

That’s the question the Indy’s Steve Richards asks in a persuasively argued column today:

David Cameron’s leadership of his party is often compared with Tony Blair’s during the period up to the 1997 election. … The comparison is one of the most misleading in British politics. … [Cameron is heading] for the election leading a party that proposes tax cuts for the well-off and married couples, massive spending cuts whether or not Britain is out of recession, withdrawal from the social chapter and a renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty. … The trajectory of Cameron’s leadership is much closer to another former leader. He might have tried to learn from the New Labour guidebooks on how to win elections, but inadvertently he has followed more closely the course adopted by one of his own recent predecessors. …

Both Hague and Cameron are outstanding parliamentary performers, witty and quick to exploit the weaknesses of political opponents. Both are calm under fire. Both started to shift their positions when they appointed press secretaries to advise them on the media. Amanda Platell urged Hague to adopt more right-wing and populist policies. Andy Coulson has sometimes advised Cameron to do the same on issues such as immigration, crime and tax cuts.

There are of course differences. Cameron is a warmer, more agile personality and has been able to assemble an incomparably stronger team. For nearly all his leadership he has been ahead in the polls, a success that creates confidence and means a less critical media. Tonally Cameron has a wider range, whereas at this stage of the parliament Hague was desperately seeking to retain the support of his core vote, worrying that the Conservatives could perform even worse than they had in 1997. Even so the similarities are much closer than those between Cameron and Blair en route to his 1997 landslide.

Of course, comparing leaders in this way is always, to some extent, false: each leader has to deal with circumstances unique to their time.

Most notably, Tony Blair had the advantage of taking over a party the extreme, unelectable wing of which was in retreat, and the moderate electable mainstream in the ascendant. by contrast, David Cameron has a serious disadvantage that he leads a party whose extreme, unelectable wing is the dominant force within the Tory party. Early attempts to stage a ‘Clause 4 moment’ to assert his supremacy over his party were soon abandoned, and Mr Cameron spends much of his time now appeasing and pacifying his party’s socially conservative right-wing.

There was a telling article – more telling than he intended – by the Spectator’s James Forsyth on the Coffee House blog last night:

… turning these [disappointing Tory poll] numbers around is, I suspect, going to require some policies that show us what David Cameron’s irreducible core is. Oddly enough, I don’t think these policies have to be particularly popular but they have to show the electorate that Cameron stands for something, that he isn’t just another say anything to win politician. Picking a fight on offering substantial recognition to marriage in the tax system might actually be a good strategy for Cameron in these circumstances. It would show that there are some things he will stand up for whatever the risks.

And here we see, in all its glory, the unreformed Tory right’s deep-seated desire to transmogrify Mr Cameron into William Hague. Once again, their argument centres round the idea that the public will respect unpopular policies because of their ideological purity – just as Mr ‘Notting Hill Carnival’ Hague was driven further and further to the right until he ended up desperately pleading with the public to ’save the pound’ while most voters were more concerned with schools and hospitals.

It is – thankfully, for those of us who are not Tories – all too typical that the Tory party’s reaction to falling poll ratings is to leap for the idea that it’s because they’re not being Tory enough.

In common with everyone else, I have no actual knowledge why the Tories’ popularity is slipping. But I do have a theory: the Tories, and especially Mr Cameron, have lost sight of their strategy of detoxifying the brand.

There has been much self-reassuring talk in Tory circles in the last fortnight that the narrowing Tory poll lead is a good thing because it will counter any sense of complacency in the party. But the complacency is actually at the top of the party: it’s the complacency of the Tory leadership that they have done enough to convince the public the Tories have genuinely changed, and that it’s now safe again to revert to their true, Thatcherite type in order to unite the party.

What was once a depressingly effective Tory strategy of ‘love-bombing the Lib Dems’ – talk big on the environment, civil liberties and democratic reform while promising no policies – has been jettisoned in favour of throwing red meat to the right-wing (blaming ‘big government’ for the recession, and tax-breaks for marriage and millionaires). Thank God.

Instead of sticking to his guns, and determinedly staying the course in the moderate, centre-ground to reassure floating voters, Mr Cameron has felt it safe to shore up his core vote. In doing so, he has reminded those voters, who were slowly being won round to the notion that maybe this time it might be safe to vote Tory (and at the very least get rid of Labour and Mr Brown), that the party Mr Cameron leads is still the same old Tories.

Back in the summer I was one of those who was, I guess, fatalistically resigned to the prospect of a Tory government, even viewed the prospect with some curiosity. Having seen the Tories revert to stereotype at the mere sniff of victory, I now view the prospect with trepidation, and a clear sense that a Tory victory is something desperately to be avoided. For sure, I am not a floating voter. But I suspect that my gut-response is, at least in part, reflected in the Tories’ declining popularity.

No-one who’s observed Mr Cameron’s leadership of the Tory party this past four years can be in any doubt of his tactical nous. There is a very big question mark now over his ability to translate those short-term tactics into a long-term strategy. That proved to be William Hague’s downfall. It might still yet prove to be the un-doing of Mr Cameron.