Alex Massie

Dave’s Problem: Voters Don’t Trust Politicians. Dave’s Solution: Ask Them to Trust Me

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Ben Brogan's column in the Telegraph today is a rum one. His thesis is that David Cameron's job is not merely to present himself as a plausible Prime Minister in waiting but also to persuade voters that they can and should trust politicians again. So, not a tricky job then.

[W]e have lost our ability to suspend disbelief and take at face value what politicians tell us. The MPs' expenses scandal has had the purgative effect Parliament desperately needed, but the collateral damage has been a growth in cynicism and a loss of trust. And no one is suffering the consequences of that more than Mr Cameron.

His strategy has always been to avoid the gimmicks of retail politics – the easy to understand promises of giveaways and tax cuts that had until now been the bread and butter of politicians on the make. His idea – one that he reasserted convincingly in an important speech on political reform Monday – is to set out some clear principles and policies, but to keep us waiting for the detail.

He is asking us to take on trust that he will produce spending cuts on a scale necessary to make good his pledge to reduce the deficit further and faster than Labour. He is asking us to take on trust that, when he can, he will reverse Mr Brown's tax rises, beginning with the job-destroying increase in National Insurance, but moving on swiftly to the 50p rate and the raid on pension contributions.

And that's it. Those waiting to see the secret weapon that will convince them that it is not just time for a change, but time for the Tories will, I fear, be disappointed. His caution against grabbing the easy headlines governs his campaign. What we see is what we are going to get.

(Let us, incidentally, also ignore Brogan's charitable suggestion that the Tories now eschew the grabbing of headlines or the peddling of shiny, but ultimately cheap, gimmicks.)

Cameron spends a great deal of time, reasonably enough, reminding voters that there's much that needs to be repaired and that this is but the first half of the job. Many people will agree with this diagnosis but this too is but the half of the matter. It is not unreasonable for voters to ask for some detail on how this might be achieved. But here the Tories too often muddy the waters. The deficit, for instance, must be tackled but the NHS won't lose a penny. That's a theme and a promise wrapped up in a single gimmicky slogan.

So, according to Brogan, the answer to a widespread crisis of confidence in politics is for politicians to ask voters to trust them and for voters to believe the politicians who ask to be trusted. I'm not sure this is a winning message. At least not in times such as these. I suspect the public remember Tony Blair's I'm a pretty straight kind of guy routine and many of them now regret buying it. If that's the case, then asking them to do the same thing again is an interestingly risky idea.

It may well be that Cameron can deliver on the ideas that underpin his candidacy. But I'm not sure it's wise of Brogan to suggest, in the current climate at least, that a failure to place one's faith in politicians demonstrates the voters' failure of imagination, rather than the shortcomings of the political class. But he does suggest exactly that:

All this because we – all of us – are angry: angry at the politicians who betrayed us, and angry at the Prime Minister who bankrupted us. No wonder we are making Mr Cameron work hard. If he wants this job, in the weeks ahead he is going to have to find new reserves of patience, of humility, and of inspiration that will persuade us that after all the lies and nonsense we have endured over the past 13 years, he is worth trusting.

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As I say, I think that in other times the Cameronian strategy might well be a fine one. But once you've spent so much time outlining the depth of the fiscal hole the country is in, then you cannot complain if the voters then ask Well what will you do about it? A few better, concrete, more credible answers to this question would be a good start. Of course, this carries risks of its own, but so does a strategy of simply pointing out that "Gordon is useless but you can trust me."

PS: Raising the spectre of large-scale emigration if Labour wins might be something Brogan thinks is helpful but I doubt this paragraph conjures the sort of picture he thinks it may:

Not that he wants to emigrate, by the way. Quite the contrary. Mr Cameron would rather be prime minister. But if the unthinkable were to happen, and after nearly five years of Tory reinvention, the country were to decide that in the end, if it's all the same, it would rather stick with Gordon Brown thanks very much, then few would begrudge Mr Cameron a one-way ticket to Switzerland (assuming he can find a spare seat on the flight).

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Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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