After more than a decade of intellectual struggle, the Conservatives have finally made a political breakthrough over the National Health Service. Last month, when a thousand people were asked which party was ‘putting forward the best health policy’, the Tories finally claimed a lead. Men favoured the plan more than women, and even 8 per cent of Labour voters admitted they preferred David Cameron’s proposals to those of Tony Blair. To beat Labour on one of its flagship issues is indeed a remarkable triumph, but one marred by a technical flaw: the Conservatives do not have a health policy.
The old one was torn up by Mr Cameron the day he became leader. He hopes to have a new one by the end of next year, when the lengthy policy review process is completed and Oliver Letwin’s small army of 350 thinkers have reported. But until then, the health ‘policy’ which ICM found to be so compellingly attractive exists only in the imagination of the voters, to the bemusement of Conservative policy-makers, who also note a lead on education, another area where the party has eschewed firm policies in the first six months of Mr Cameron’s leadership.
He has entered the curious electoral wonderland in which Charles Kennedy happily lived for his six years as Liberal Democrat leader. Few voters seem sure what Mr Cameron’s policies are, but many prefer them anyway — leading, in the Conservatives’ case, to a sustained, dazzling and often incredible lead over Labour. For the last six weeks Labour has been forced into second place in every opinion poll. On Monday the volatile Mori poll declared the Conservatives ten points ahead of Labour — the largest Tory lead it has recorded since the heyday of Thatcher in 1988.
It is hugely tempting for the Conservatives to believe that after six short months of Cameron leadership the British public has undergone a Damascene conversion. But scratch the surface of the polls and a different picture emerges. What we are witnessing is not mass vindication of Cameronism but an implosion in support for the Labour party. There is grave danger for the Tories if they confuse the two.
To be fair, Francis Maude, the Tory chairman, needs no convincing that the polls speak with forked tongue. Since taking the job, his mission has been to persuade the party of its deep unpopularity and, ergo, the enduring need for fundamental change. He believes his job is to puncture misplaced optimism, which he regards as the greatest threat to the party’s renewal mission. Others in the Tory high command spread the gloom to anyone caught gloating: a national opinion-poll lead, they say, does not help a party whose grassroots political infrastructure is decaying everywhere outside the south of England.
Mr Maude is right. After nine long years the infuriating Teflon coating which protected New Labour has peeled off and the toxic mixture of sleaze, financial scandal and rank incompetence is beginning to erode its gleaming surface. Exhibit A is Tony Blair’s approval rating of a damning -41 percentage points. This was the level to which Margaret Thatcher sank during the poll tax riots; Mr Blair has pulled off the same feat in relatively prosperous and socially stable times. Most worryingly for Labour, the polls suggest it would do even worse under Gordon Brown.
This political exodus from Labour has coincided with an extraordinary event: the Conservatives have elected a leader whom the public do not dislike. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all gave voters a bit of a shudder, and John Major was in a league of his own, the least popular leader in the history of British opinion polling. Uniquely, Mr Cameron’s ratings have thus far been uniformly positive. Hitherto, the Tory brand — or the Tory leader personally — repelled New Labour voters. Now this is no longer an insuperable obstacle. By sheer force of personality, Mr Cameron has made his party an acceptable refuge for voters who turned to Mr Blair in 1997.
The drawback to having supporters who declare loyalty to non-existent policies is that their illusions may be shattered when the real policies come along. Mr Cameron has chosen to delay this moment for as long as possible, and it looks increasingly likely that his real health policy may not be unveiled until the end of next year. The temptation to sit back and believe the polls is strong, but treacherous.
For a start, it gives Labour a firm line of attack: that the Conservatives are intellectually flaky and that Mr Cameron is little more than a public relations man. Gordon Brown is itching to launch this strategy now. His aim is to have voters compare his neurotically detailed policies with the blank canvases in the Conservative portfolio. His battle-plan is tedious: to portray globalisation as a threat and ask voters which party is best equipped to see off this demon. Yet the sooner he moves the political debate on to policies, the worse it will be for a Tory party which has scarcely decided any — other than what it will definitely not do, such as bring back grammar schools.
The next danger lies in a curious and unreported trend: Mr Cameron’s approval rating is steadily evaporating. When he was first elected leader, he had a +34 net approval rating, which slid to +17 in March, and last month’s poll puts him down at just +2. Perhaps it shows that the honeymoon has ended. Perhaps the novelty factor is waning or Labour’s tawdry misbehaviour is rubbing off on all politicians. But it bodes ill. The stagnation of the Lib Dems since Mr Kennedy’s departure has shown what happens when a party’s strength is too heavily concentrated in its leader’s popularity.
Strikingly, where the Conservatives have laid out firm policy there has been no visible instant uptake. George Osborne has gone into some detail about his ‘triple lock’ on economic stability and warned that he will be unlikely to offer tax cuts at the next election. The idea is that voters now care more about stable mortgage rates than tax cuts, and fear that Tory tax cuts would lead to increased mortgages for all, so that a privileged few could keep more of their earnings. But on the economy, the issue which traditionally decides British elections, the Conservatives are still behind.
Perhaps because of his six years as a public relations manager, Mr Cameron does not believe the hype of the polls. He recently joked that one way of calming down exuberant party workers is to say ‘awright, awright’ — impersonating Neil Kinnock’s scream at the 1992 Sheffield rally. Fourteen years ago, the doomed Labour leader fell for the flattering opinion polls and laid on a display of crude triumphalism which appalled the nation and arguably lost him the election. An identical fate awaits the Conservatives if they make the same mistake.