The Spectator

The Coffee House Debate

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Welcome to a debate between Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, and Matthew d’Ancona on how the Tories should respond to the Brown challenge.

Tim Montgomerie starts things off:

Dear Matt,

I’m glad to be doing this exchange of thoughts with you again and many congratulations on the Coffee House blog.  It's quickly become essential reading.

Brown has had a good few days and it's beyond doubt that he should not be underestimated.  I think David Cameron should expect some tricky opinion poll ratings in the next couple of weeks.  If the party can hold its nerve over the coming period, however, I am hopeful that Project Cameron can still succeed.

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Matt responds:

Dear Tim

Thanks for doing this. It’s been quite a couple of days.

I agree with you completely about personnel: Osborne, Hague and Davis should be left in post, with some of the best and brightest (definitely Michael Gove and Ed Vaizey) brought into the front line. Cameron has no need to be rushed into an unnecessary game of musical chairs: indeed, one of the crucial tests is that the public do not get the scent in their nostrils of Tory panic.

At the same time, complacency is as bad as panic. The fact is that most Tories (conservativehome being an honourable exception) underestimated Brown badly, and have been caught off guard by the vigour and daring of his first actions. It was predictable that he would try to close down the negative impression that he was a dour Stalinist by smiling a lot and promising to “listen and learn”. That he would pose so aggressively as the candidate of change was less foreseeable and presents a formidable challenge to Cameron, however preposterous the claim may seem.

Authenticity is, as you say, the key. Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s pollster now working for John Edwards, was, as you know, in town recently, and he identified authenticity as the principal determinant of trust in the modern world of politics. For Cameron, this means not shifting an inch from his excellent “brand decontamination” project: he has been right to emphasise the environment, social justice and international development, and he should resist all calls (and there will be plenty) for him to revert to a core vote strategy. We have seen that movie three times now, and we know how it ends.

But authenticity means not only meaning what you say but having something to say that justifies your claim to office. What is lacking, still, in the Cameron campaign is a sense of hunger, mission and purpose: an impatience to get into Number Ten to transform the country for the common good. The grammar schools row mattered not only because it illustrated a leader who was sometimes plain rude to his own supporters – your courtesy point – but because it suggested that he was out of touch with the aspirations and anxieties of ordinary people. To say that grammar schools are bad in one area but fine in another sounded daft. To imply that selection is acceptable in the private sector but not in state schools was much worse: the voice of a lofty anthropologist looking down on the funny little voters. Your “AND theory” shows that the choice between modernisation and bread and butter Tory ideas is a false dichotomy: he can do both.

For me, Cameron can only be “the change” if he understands how we, the voters, want the country to change. Saying that he trusts us is not enough. He needs to mark out positions (not the same as spelling out detailed policies) that make it clear that he is on our side. Brown understands this, and is positioning himself as the Scottish Sarkozy. We need more from Cameron on people’s ordinary insecurities and hopes: making ends meet, staying safe on the streets, getting value for money from the public services they fund, fairness in welfare, green policies that are practical.

In short, I would like to hear passion as well as warmth in his voice. It is all to play for. But he has to raise his game.

Best, Matt