A party striving to make the huge leap from opposition to office must speak with one voice, maintain scrupulous clarity and ensure iron discipline. It must reassure the voters relentlessly, persuading them at every available opportunity that it has changed and that it grasps why it has been defeated in prior general elections. Yet a party that aspires to save the country from economic crisis and to transform its public services must also be prepared to think the unthinkable, and to take deeply unpopular measures.
This is the dilemma facing David Cameron, neatly encapsulated in the controversy over the NHS and the remarks made in America by the Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan, about the shortcomings of the British healthcare system. Invited to respond to those in the US who would like to import a version of the NHS, Mr Hannan said that he ‘wouldn’t wish it on anybody’ — particularly the queuing, rationing and bureaucracy that are intrinsic to a nationalised, socialised system of healthcare. As Labour leapt gleefully upon these remarks, Mr Cameron distanced himself from Mr Hannan’s ‘quite eccentric views’ and emphasised that ‘the Conservative party stands full square behind the NHS… We back it, we are going to expand it, we have ring-fenced it, and said that it will get more money under a Conservative government, and it is our number one mission to improve it.’
To be fair to Mr Cameron, the perception that he is a champion of the NHS has been critical to the revival of the Conservative party’s fortunes. It is easy to mock the ‘brand decontamination’ strategy adopted by the Cameroons, but, without it, the voters would still be suspicious of Tory motives and fretful about returning the party to office. Indeed, there is still much work to be done in this regard.