There’s a spectre haunting the Conservative party, the spectre of a voteless recovery. Under the gothic arches of the House of Commons, small groups of Tory MPs stand around nervously debating whether ‘it’s John Major all over again’. Their fear is that a Conservative government will preside over an economic recovery but receive scant thanks for it from the voters.
This concern has been sparked by a dire set of weekend newspaper headlines for the party. What worried MPs, and even some ministers, most was that these awful front pages followed a week in which the government actually had quite a lot of good news to talk about. Unemployment, crime and NHS waiting times were all down.
Those who were in Major’s Downing Street are adamant that the parallel is wrong. They point out that negative media coverage of the government hasn’t become institutionalised yet. David Cameron’s conference speech, for instance, received the kind of reviews that Major could only have dreamed of after Black Wednesday. Cameron has also not suffered anything akin to the humiliation of Britain’s ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. There have been U-turns. They have, though, been confined to relatively minor matters.
There are other important differences. As one Conservative veteran says, ‘No one could say Cameron is insecure. He has a natural sense of himself. Major was deeply insecure in a way that almost invited people to push him around.’ Cameron also has no big ideological split in the Conservative party to deal with. The MPs sounding off in the Sunday papers were not doing so about any great cause but were offering technical criticisms of the Downing Street operation.
But perhaps the most important difference from the Major years is that there’s no Tony Blair. Ed Miliband is a more formidable politician than some Conservative strategists realised. But he’s not the vote-harvesting machine that Blair was.
The polls differ on precisely how far Labour is ahead; most have the party’s lead in double figures while one this week had it down to five points. But Conservative Cabinet ministers are buoyed by the fact that no Conservative government that went on to win re-election had been doing better in the polls at mid-term than the party is now.
Combine this with the clarity that Cameron’s conference speech provided and you can see why most ministers dismiss last week’s bad news — botched energy announcement, George Osborne’s train tickets and Andrew Mitchell’s resignation — as a blip. One describes it as ‘the inevitable bucket of shit that gets poured over your head when a Cabinet minister resigns’. Another says: ‘We’ve been battered about. But Mitchell aside, most of this stuff doesn’t cut through and strategically we’re in the right place.’
In an attempt to get back on track, No. 10 has prepared a boiled-down version of the Prime Minister’s speech for Conservative Cabinet ministers to take to the country. One senior aide says: ‘We’re on the side of aspiration and this is why Labour doesn’t get it.’
This week, soon after the release of the GDP figures, they’ll be urged to stress that ‘the economy is healing’ and that ‘Britain is in a global race’ for competitiveness. Ministers will also be pushed to go out and promote the government. They will be encouraged to hammer home the message that the government’s reforms are about fostering a ‘strong private sector, welfare that works and schools that teach’. There’ll be plenty of attacks on Labour too. The main one will be that Labour would do it all over again on the economy. Michael Gove, the education secretary and one of Cameron’s closest allies, is also developing a sophisticated critique about the backwards-looking nature of what Miliband has to offer.
Whenever a Prime Minister has a bad week, attention inevitably centres on his Downing Street operation; this is a recognition of just how presidential our politics has become. There’s much talk at the moment that the current No. 10 is insufficiently political and lacks attention to detail. Cameron’s team is built more on friendships and old connections than a particular view of the world. Its ideological heterodoxy is striking: it contains some of that increasingly rare breed, the Tory Europhile, but also some who want Britain to leave the European Union.
Cameron is incredibly loyal to his team, going out of his way last week to reassure them that he didn’t blame them for the bad headlines. As one Cabinet minister remarks, the demand of some Tory MPs that Cameron should sack several members of the team is ‘like saying the Prime Minister should fire his mother. It’s not going to happen.’ But there is truth to the charge that it lacks any political street-fighters.
Lynton Crosby, the hard-charging Australian strategist who masterminded Boris Johnson’s mayoral victories and ran the Conservative’s 2005 campaign, is being eyed up for a role. Both Cameron and Osborne know him well. He is also close to Steve Hilton through Hilton’s wife, Rachel Whetstone, and has been a guest at their Oxfordshire home. If Hilton were to come back for the campaign, as the leadership still hopes he will, they would be able to work together.
Crosby is currently earning a small fortune in the private sector and there’s been much speculation that the Conservatives couldn’t afford him. But one senior source says that the problem isn’t financial: ‘If it was just about money, Andrew Feldman would be sent out to raise it.’ The real stumbling block is that Crosby is asking for a level of control over the operation that the leadership is reluctant to give him, for fear of upsetting the coalition.
Cameron is attempting to govern in difficult circumstances. As his allies constantly stress, ‘He’s in coalition and there’s no money left.’ But these challenges make it all the more important that he cuts out the unforced errors that call into question his competence and his motives. The Conservatives will receive a political dividend from the economic recovery only if the voters think it has happened because of them, and not in spite of them.