How Supercam Can Win the Next Election

Cameron thinks Obama’s victory vindicates Osborne’s social liberalism but they both need to focus on aspiration and prosperity

Iain Martin

In Downing Street, they love Barack Obama. The Prime Minister and his Chancellor see the re-election of the US President as pointing the way to Tory triumph at the next UK general election because it supposedly vindicates their own modernising approach. It suggests incumbents can win, even when they haven’t done a great job. A stuttering economic recovery seems to be no barrier to election success.

Indeed, in the hours after the US result became clear, the Prime Minister was desperate to associate himself with the man who had given him renewed hope. He made sure he won the race to be the first leader to congratulate Obama, tweeting his tribute early on November 7. Rather demeaningly, No 10 later issued a picture of the Prime Minister purportedly on the telephone to the President. There is no way of knowing whether it really was Obama on the other end of the line, or whether Cameron was on hold. Perhaps he was just leaving a message on the answerphone in the Oval Office. Or maybe he was attempting to emulate his hero, Harold Macmillan, who reveled in his personal special relationship with the glamorous John F. Kennedy.  

Days after the Cameron call, George Osborne, billed by his lately somewhat shrunken fan club as the master strategist, took the Obama worship a step farther. Breaking off from concentrating “110 per cent” on the economy, he wrote a piece for The Times on what he made of the President’s victory. The resulting column was Osborne in a nutshell. The Chancellor is obsessively tactical—bright in a metropolitan way, trend-obsessed and an obvious lover of US electoral geekery and West Wing wonkery. However, when writing such pieces he does tend to give himself away. There were the obligatory and worryingly long sections on opinion polling and a part where he appeared to suggest that Obama only really got back on track when he adopted an Osborne-ite message: “Beginning the long, hard road to recovery.” Apparently the similarity and resonance of what Obama and Cameron are both saying is “striking”.

It is dangerous to read too much into American elections from a British perspective. The UK and the US are different, and the idea that from the 1960s until the end of the Blair era we were somehow on similar cycles has not applied for many a year. Blair’s cooperation with the Republican George W. Bush was closer, and more eventful, than his partnership with the Democrat Bill Clinton. The Conservative Cameron didn’t want the Republican Mitt Romney to win.

US society is also markedly different from Britain’s, with religion and race mattering much more than they do here. This has not prevented Osborne from arriving at the conclusion that Obama’s backing of gay marriage shows the Tories the way they now need to go, when, really, it doesn’t. Travel outside the M25, or Notting Hill, or Islington, and try the argument. Although some people are opposed and others are in favour, it will not be high up the list of priorities of many people battling to keep the show on the road in a time of falling living standards. It is perfectly possible to be relaxed about gay marriage and still see that making it the top priority between now and the election would be mad. Yet the Chancellor implies that the Conservatives must either copy Obama and embrace gay marriage not just individually but as a party, or lose in 2015.

This is a great shame. Not simply because it is embarrassing that grown-men in positions of authority should fawn over the leader of another country. It is a shame for the Tories, and Cameron in particular, because they are otherwise getting somewhere. It is becoming increasingly clear that they can win the next election, if their leadership doesn’t mess it up like it did the last one.

This positive assessment of their prospects might sound surprising. The last year has hardly been easy for Britain’s Conservatives and the coming year does not promise to be much smoother either. It has been messy, from Osborne’s omnishambolic budget of the spring, through the various minor calamities of the summer, and on into the fuss over whether or not Andrew Mitchell, the former Tory chief whip, swore at policemen on guard in Downing Street. Even though the economy showed welcome signs of life, in improving employment figures and a good quarter of growth, the optimism does not seem to have lasted long. The latest leg of the eurozone crisis looms. The single currency seems close to another explosion, with the EU sliding into recession and bailouts in Spain and Italy easy to envisage. The eurozone’s troubles are bound to impact on the UK and interrupt the recovery.

Lord Leveson having produced his report on the press, the Prime Minister has the unenviable task of deciding whether or not to implement it, with much of Fleet Street ready to denounce him if he does and many others if he does not. 

Meanwhile, the coalition government becomes steadily more ridiculous and dysfunctional. Those at the very top of it—the so-called “quad” of Cameron, Osborne, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander—say that they are getting on splendidly. Fine, they are keeping each other in office and enjoying it. Underneath them, it is more often like ferrets fighting in a sack.

Take energy policy. Tory and Lib Dem ministers in the department concerned openly and loudly disagree about wind power. The rural voter worried about giant wind turbines on nearby land can have no idea what government policy is when the government itself doesn’t seem to know. On defence, the Tory end of the coalition announced that the government is taking a step on the way to the renewal of Trident, the UK’s ageing nuclear deterrent. Then up popped Clegg within hours to deny it. When it comes to Europe, an area requiring serious thought, the exigencies of coalition induce dangerous gridlock. The government’s policy is predicated largely on saying as little as possible about the EU and hoping the crisis goes away.

The argument made for coalition in May 2010 was that it would give the country stable and reliable government. In a swathe of important areas it is now providing the opposite of what its advocates predicted.

Yet the Tories seem in better heart than they were a year ago. Without being too Osbornite or poll-obsessed about it, in general Labour is not registering the kind of lead the party’s strategists know they need to be recording consistently at this stage in the parliament. Ed Miliband has yet to make a connection with enough of the electorate. His party’s case is weak, its prospectus thin. The Tories are still regularly polling in the 30s, and quite often in the mid-30s, while Ken Clarke regales Conservative Cabinet members with tales of how much worse it was at times in the 1980s at the depths of Margaret Thatcher’s unpopularity. Landslides followed.

No one is predicting that, but there has been a definite lightening of the Tory mood. This parliament is now past the halfway mark, and even if the coalition survives it has only a couple of years left to run. The climb to the next election starts now. Barring the sudden arrival of a meteorite in SW1, Cameron will lead his party into that contest, and for all but his most hardened internal critics the view will be that the Tories had better make of it what they can.

In the Conservative parliamentary party the atmosphere certainly seems to have improved since the summer, with the Prime Minister’s team in No 10 making efforts to pay more attention to the concerns of MPs. While there are still plenty of rebels among their number, as the vote calling on Cameron to demand a cut in the European budget showed, the private criticism of the Tory leader has become noticeably less caustic and personal in recent months.  

The Lib Dem determination to kill off the boundary changes is a factor, of course. In the coalition agreement Clegg signed up to a reduction in the number of Westminster seats, to correct the anomalies which which have long disadvantaged the Conservatives. Clegg has since reneged in a huff because Tory backbenchers killed off his plan for a largely elected House of Lords. 

Clegg’s bad faith has given the Tory leadership the opportunity to license guerrilla attacks by Tory ministers on the Lib Dems. This explains the recent spat on wind-farms, when the Tory minister responsible, the redoubtable John Hayes, denounced wind turbines to the horror of his notionally superior Lib Dem Cabinet minister, Ed Davey. This does not remotely make for good government but it doesn’t half raise Tory morale. At Conservative headquarters, there is a fresh willingness to put the Lib Dems to the sword. More of Clegg’s MPs now appear on the list of Tory target seats for the next election than the Conservative leadership originally envisaged. The Cameroons have come a long way from suggesting, during the honeymoon of the coalition, that the relationship between the two parties should be formalised in an electoral pact.

Unusually, what has made the biggest single difference in improving the optics for the Tories is a speech, the one Cameron gave to his party conference in the autumn. It was not only his best such offering to date: it may turn out to be genuinely important, which such speeches hardly ever are. Not because it was watched by the country, with a grateful electorate hanging on every word. These speeches are not consumed by large numbers of voters, although his party was listening. It was about ideas and contained a proper argument which he and the Tories could build on next year and beyond. 

At last Cameron seemed capable of making an authentically Conservative case on aspiration, reform and patriotism. After seven years as leader of his party, in Birmingham he finally found a coherent way of speaking to the “striving” classes, the people he really needs to reach, on the subject of opportunity and economic rebirth. Incidentally, surely Mitt “Mr 47 per cent” Romney’s failure last month is much more likely to turn out to have been in this department rather than having anything to do with gay marriage. The Republican candidate lost because he was the representative of a rich elite and did nothing convincing to counter such perceptions. As the Chancellor who cut the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p for the highest paid, but who is simultaneously putting several million new Britons farther down the pay scale into the 40p tax band, Osborne might have problems in that regard too. Labour strategists certainly see his remoteness as one of their strongest campaigning cards. He should be worrying about that, and devising ways to deal with it through his work in the Treasury, not banging on about gay marriage.

It comes down to the extent to which Cameron’s pride and loyalty limit his ability to tell his friend, who remains general election supremo despite the appointment of the Australian Lynton Crosby as Cameron’s strategist, that his analysis here is offbeam. What the Conservatives most certainly do not need is another round of self-flagellation by the Tory modernisers and a misguided concentration on militant social liberalism. That will only splinter the party’s existing vote, when they should be seeking to build a coalition of Conservative interests that is as broad as possible. That means avoiding diversions so that the largest number of potential supporters can unite around an easily understood proposition. In an age of small parties and anti-politics voter resentment, when it is difficult for Conservatives to get a majority, this becomes doubly important. 

Cameron should stick ruthlessly with the themes he has started to map out. If he does, he will be on the ground he needs to win. To get there he will have to filter out the Chancellor’s more liberal warblings (something the Prime Minister is usually loath to do) and focus relentlessly on promoting economic opportunity, trumpeting Michael Gove’s outstanding education reforms and selling Iain Duncan Smith’s changes to welfare. Do that and he can win.

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