Fraser Nelson says that the Tory leader knows that his campaign to win over the Lib Dem voters may not succeed in the local elections. But he has decided not to change his strategy a jot: the chameleon’s not for turning
David Cameron could hardly wish for a better backdrop to next week’s English local elections. The Home Secretary admits that a thousand foreign ex-convicts have slipped the deportation net and been left at large. The Health Secretary is heckled by union workers and spectacularly mishandles a National Health Service crisis. Donors in the loans-for-ermine scandal are demanding their money back, and the Deputy Prime Minister confesses to an extramarital affair. And yet, in spite of all this, no one in Conservative headquarters dares predict any sign of a breakthrough for the party on Thursday.
The election is evidently Cameron’s first big test, but no one on his team will admit as much. ‘If we do well, we’ll say it was all to do with David,’ says one shadow Cabinet member. ‘If it goes horribly wrong, we’ll blame local factors.’ A recent ICM poll showed that while Labour has indeed been pushed to its lowest opinion-poll rating since 1987, voters are running straight to the Liberal Democrats or minority parties.
On a personal basis, Cameron’s polling could scarcely be better, but it is not generating prospective votes. ‘It is as if Cameron and the Conservatives are two entirely separate concepts,’ says one baffled insider. I am told that Oliver Letwin, the Tories’ head of policy, now says that the Conservative brand is fundamentally broken, and only extraordinary change will give the party any chance of returning to government. Unless public perception changes drastically, he argues, all is lost. Francis Maude, the party chairman, has several flipcharts that reinforce Letwin’s morbid analysis.
The mood among Cameron’s closest lieutenants may be bleak, but there a surprising optimism in party headquarters as it prepares for the elections in 4,360 of England’s 19,580 council seats — most in urban areas where the Tory machinery is at its most decayed. The team is working well under the generalship of Eric Pickles, a blunt Yorkshireman who made history by taking Bradford council for the Conservatives in 1988. He has remained enmeshed in local campaigns ever since, and had started preparing for next week’s election before Cameron was anointed leader. Pickles is scarcely an instinctive moderniser and is, in some respects, the antithesis of the smoothly metropolitan Cameron. But experience on the doorstep has led him to draw the same conclusions as the young party leader.
Like everyone else who campaigns in the jobless slums where the BNP seeks to stir racial tension, Pickles knows that the Conservatives have a large potential audience waiting to hear tough words on immigration. But the dog-whistle that Michael Howard tried to blow during the last election campaign, Pickles believes, pierces the eardrums of suburban Britain, and the result is a net loss of votes. For these reasons he entirely backs Cameron’s strategy of focusing on the environment, thus appealing to upmarket voters in wards defended by Lib Dems.
One shadow Cabinet member puts it thus: ‘Labour’s problem is greater than ours. Their core vote is white working-class. Ours is ABC1s and that’s where we have been doing appallingly badly. The point is that those voters are much more squeamish about what they see as shabby, naff politics. We have to focus on them like a laser.’
So the Lib Dems and their upmarket wavering voters are the main target. The third party, for all its travails in the past year, remains a fearsome opponent due to its hugely motivated grassroots campaigners, who practise pavement politics without rules or scruples. ‘The Lib Dems turn up in their caravans, blitz an area for half a day, then move on,’ says one Tory official, conceding that his party has nothing to match it. The Conservatives are creating a secret computer system, named ‘New Chip’, to identify target voters, but it is not ready yet. Meanwhile, Pickles has to stick to the carbon-based weapon of Cameron himself.
‘He does a damned good job on the doorsteps,’ says Pickles. ‘I’ve watched him charm people’s pants off. If these elections were just about David Cameron, then we’d have nothing to worry about.’ But the elections are about a multiplicity of issues: policing, recycling, litter, council tax — and yes, anger over immigration and crime. In the minds of many on Britain’s poorest housing estates, the last two issues have become increasingly intertwined, making these wards depressingly fertile terrain for the British National Party. The foreign prisoners release scandal has only exacerbated this.
For the Conservatives, however, asylum and immigration are out of bounds. ‘Do you really think we would campaign on the issue on which we lost the general election?’ one campaign manager asks. The orthodox view in the party’s high command is that immigration lost the 2005 election for the Tories, as Europe allegedly did in 2001 — so neither is being afforded any prominence. The brief given to Damian Green, the immigration spokesman, is to stay out of the newspapers. In this way, an extraordinary decision has been taken to leave the party’s right flank undefended.
At the heart of the Tories’ local government campaign has been the proposition that the party must choose between environment or immigration — or, as one Tory MP bluntly puts it, ‘the preoccupations of the rich over the concerns of the poor’. There are still many Tories who think Mr Cameron should build a Conservative party which does both. They worry, as Margaret Thatcher did before the 1979 election, that if no mainstream party represents concerns of low-income voters about the effects of mass immigration, racist parties will prosper electorally.
Should Cameron lose more than a hundred council seats next Thursday and fail to capitalise on the country’s manifest disaffection with Labour, such criticisms will become louder. But the Cameroons have already planned for this eventuality. The Tory leader’s private intention is not to give an inch and, if necessary, stage a public battle with his critics in the press and those within his party, such as Lord Tebbit, who believe that his strategy is fundamentally mistaken.
Yet for all the clashes that may lie ahead, relations in the party machine are unusually harmonious. David Davis is, to quote one of Cameron’s staff, ‘just a dream’. Like Liam Fox at defence, the shadow Home Secretary has been given much more autonomy than he would have thought possible in the days before Mr Cameron’s victory was announced, when some Cameroons were hoping that Mr Davis would be sacked altogether. This capacity to delegate and readiness to trust potential rivals is key to Cameron’s leadership style. He has neither the time nor the inclination to hold the reins too tightly. For now, this is paying off.
While Mrs Thatcher was often at her desk at 5.30 a.m., and Michael Howard at 7.30, Cameron makes a strict rule of staying with his young family during the early morning, and anyone desperate to see him has to make the pilgrimage to his west London house. He argues that his political judgment will suffer if his life consists only of work, and he insists upon blackout periods in his diary — including a slot for an afternoon nap should childcare duties disturb his sleep.
His day starts with a 9 a.m. meeting with his press and research team, by which time he has usually spoken to Steve Hilton. This genial, crop-haired Svengali still has no title, but his importance to the Cameron Project is clear enough from his £270,000 annual salary. No major decision is taken without consulting him. Next come Letwin and George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor. At the daily 9.15 a.m. meeting they are joined by the rest of the top team — normally Davis, Maude, William Hague and (less regularly) Fox. Far from being a tub-thumping reactionary, Hague has surprised colleagues since his comeback with his ideological flexibility. He is also talking in private of an option raised publicly by Kenneth Clarke in The Spectator in March — namely, coalition with the Lib Dems.
The brute psephological fact is that Cameron can have a ten-point lead and still fail to win a parliamentary majority at the next general election. In reality, his only hope of office lies in a coalition — cultural, as well as parliamentary — with the third party. Hence his antics watching glaciers melt in Norway, driving eco-friendly cars around racetracks, and speaking of social justice in a language that Lib Dems find congenial. It is a form of mating ritual with the third party — and the local election campaign is the opening dance.
Tim Montgomerie, founder of the increasingly influential conservativehome.com website, now talks of a ‘Lib Dem test’ being applied to all Cameron’s policies, assessing whether they would make a putative coalition easier or harder. ‘On environmentalism, the new enthusiasm for civil liberties, and the reticence on Iraq, the answer is yes,’ he says.
The Labour party, meanwhile, has its own problems. Its main threat comes from its own voters, who may simply stay at home to register their fury over the National Health Service, the accidental release of more than 1,000 foreign prisoners and the creeping impression of venality and sleaze at the top of the government. To remind them of the common enemy — and to re-animate a form of class war — Labour’s strategists made the ‘Dave the Chameleon’ broadcast, which shows Cameron as an apparently privately educated reptile sipping champagne in limousines and turning different political colours to suit his audience. Here, as so often in politics, the law of unintended consequences has prevailed: many have seen in the little creature the caricature of a politically versatile man, hard to dislike.
Cameron claims to be delighted, opening a speech to journalists with the words ‘My fellow reptiles’. I am told by a key figure in Labour’s campaign that their private polling showed that a nastier attack on Cameron would have rebounded, because he remains too popular. The result was a soft punch that missed its target. If anything, the broadcast reinforces Cameron’s message that the party is changing and chimes with the ‘Vote blue, go green’ environmentalism he wants to make his signature theme.
In this subtle fashion, the campaign is delivering more victories for Cameron than he can expect on election night itself. His team is working well, his chosen ‘go green’ message is being clearly projected, and Labour still does not know how to tackle him. Recently Cameron was given a briefing on Gordon Brown’s savage campaign tactics. Afterwards he stood outside the room with Hilton and a few others. ‘It certainly makes you think,’ he said. ‘He really is a formidable opponent.’ But last week we saw Brown follow Cameron’s lead on environmentalism, urging the public on the need not to leave televisions on standby. Yet, coming from the Chancellor, it inevitably sounded more like a threat than a plea for ethical behaviour.
Privately, those running Labour’s campaign admit that Cameron is pushing his environment theme with admirable clarity and consistency. ‘It’s like Peter Mandelson said: “Punch the bruise”,’ says one of Labour strategists. ‘The public begin to hear a message only when the media is sick of it.’ Nor has Labour found a proper, focused attack for Cameron. Its ‘flip-flop’ jibe was imported from George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign — but it is already wearing thin because Cameron shows none of the indecision shown by the hapless John Kerry, the presidential challenger. Cameron’s change is permanent. He is all flip and no flop.
There is danger in such consistency. Wooing Lib Dems could mean abandoning for good the low-income, aspirational voters who once regarded the Tories, not the BNP, as the radical alternative to Labour. Such people, no less than the ABC1s beloved of the Cameroons, were essential to Mrs Thatcher’s electoral base. While they may fall away, there is no sign — yet — that Cameron’s new voters are ready to replace them. ‘Phase Two’ of the Cameron project is the really hard part. It involves sticking to the principles of ‘Phase One’, even if those principles yield disappointing results at the polls. On Thursday, as the votes are counted, we shall see how hard it is really going to be.
Fraser Nelson is political editor of The Spectator.