With the Tories back up to a ten-point lead in the YouGov/Sunday Times poll, it seems that – as James put it
yesterday – the ‘big mo’ is with them. David Cameron is about to survive his third political near-death experience: the first being his leadership campaign and the second the election-that-never-was in 2007. This demonstrates Cameron’s extraordinary recovery capacity – but also an unfortunate habit of blowing opinion poll leads. It’s a habit that I hope he has now kicked: the elastic on his political bungee may snap if he tries another dive before the election. So it’s time to ask: what went wrong? And what went right?
Both should be painfully clear by now. I say in my News of the World column
today, “Detect a trend yet? If the Tories say “we’re shiny and modern!” no one cares. When they cut taxes, people listen. It’s not rocket science. People will vote for the party that makes life better for them. End of story.” When the party focuses on image, it’s at its worst. While important, image does not win elections. When it makes itself useful – by saying “you will be better-off under us” – it captures voters’ imagination. Labour, which is institutionally greedy for other people’s money, cannot match such a pledge. A tax cut, even a teeny one like the £150/year National Insurance tax cut* crystalises the difference between the two parties. If any CoffeeHousers know any Tory candidates, they will have heard what a difference this makes in the doorsteps. Being able to say “you will be better off” earns you a hearing.
What we saw last week is the Tory party shaking off the last pieces of shrapnel of the Tory Wars. One of the greatest errors in politics is to fight the last war – and, in some cases, there are people who are still fighting the last leadership battle. George Osborne once described them to me as the “uber-modernisers”. Those who are, psychologically, still fighting the 1990-2005 Tory wars. They go into palpatations when they hear the phrase ‘tax cuts’, because – to them – this has a terrible resonance, represents the agenda of a section of the party whom they define themselves against.
The Tory moderniser project, which came into its own in the first half of the last decade, has worked its magic. Cameron has implemented its agenda, which is largely why the party has earned a hearing. The brand has been successfully decontaminated, and the party should be forever in Cameron’s debt because of that. He pulled off a trick that his last four predecessors failed to. But advancing this agenda in 2010 is like trying to flog ice-creams in a rainstorm. The crash changed everything. This has rendered redundant previous Tory divisions. The cuts agenda is one that even Labour has had to sign up to.
I did not take sides in the Tory wars, and even now fund them a bit baffling. Only a few months ago did I work out that the phrase “no to unfunded tax cuts” is directed at the defunct David Davis campaign. In his NI cuts, George Osborne has given the whole party something to rally around. If he extends this to married couples tax cuts, as the News of the World outlines today, then there will even more spring in the step of the Tories. The lead will get bigger.
The strength of both Cameron and Osborne - but Cameron especially – is versatility. Cameron has a feel for the mood of the country. He could see his campaign was going into the ground. He called in the Americans, M&C Saatchi, came up with a harder focus and a tax cut (or, technically speaking, a decision not to implement a tax rise). His instincts are usually right. But he listens too much to people with poorer judgment than his. One of his Oxford tutors once explained to me that this is a hangover from Cameron’s poorish results at Eton: he went to Oxford with damaged intellectual self-confidence, which made him pay more heed that he should to people far dimmer than he. Cameron has a Brasenose First, but lacks the intellectual arrogance that usually accompanies it.
Weirdly, I wish that Cameron were more arrogant and more of a control freak. He is the sharpest tool in his own box. When he takes personal charge of the campaign and trusts his instincts, as he did in October 2007 and in the last month, things come together. This is why I have such faith in him as a potential Prime Minister: he is at his best when handling crises. And when you think of what lies in store for whoever wins next months’ election, there is no more important quality.