It is said that the unwritten rule in 10 Downing Street is not to mention to Prime Minister David Cameron why the Conservatives did not win an outright majority in 2010. Going by these standards it may be wise if ever in the Treasury not to mention the 2012 spring budget to George Osborne. Two months have passed since the chancellor delivered his now infamous budget and it has brought the government nothing but negative headlines ever since.
Not only did the Conservatives take a kicking in the recent local elections, but so have many of its ministers. Home Secretary Theresa May managed to get her days wrong when trying to finally deport radical Islamic cleric Abu Qatada, Sayeeda Warsi is the latest politician to be accused of fiddling her expenses. Not to mention the elephant in the room involving the Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his relationship with News International.
I suspect the chancellor; also the Conservative’s chief electoral strategist could not have foreseen what was coming around the corner. Far removed was the analysis regarding potential tax revenue increases or a shifting of the ‘Laffer Curve’, but endless reams of front pages calling it a tax break for millionaires and hyperbole over the so-called ‘pasty tax’. This decision was politically bold and one this blog believes to have been correct, but its aftermath has been managed appallingly. At a time of severe economic gloom and pain for many sectors of society, particularly the politically important C1s and C2s, if this change were to be ushered in, it had to be done effectively. This it was not.
As a consequence the Labour party have managed to take a 14-point lead in the polls with their leader Ed Miliband becoming noticeably better in his duels with Cameron at the weekly PMQs. Cameron, who has always ranked higher in approval ratings compared to his party, has also suffered. Probably the most popular Conservative in the country is the London mayor Boris Johnson and beyond that, people may start scratching their heads. The Liberal Democrat’s fortunes faded a long time before.
Theories of so-called ‘midterm blues’ have been thrown about by coalition MPs, but it’s not difficult to see why many already see the rot setting in. Despite the PM and his deputy Clegg renewing their vows in another rose garden moment at a factory in Basildon, the tensions are visible. Relations over Europe and most significantly the ways to see growth in the economy are causing tension.
Many commentators agree that it already appears to be getting to Cameron. He has lost his composure on several occasions of late, mostly during PMQs and particularly to the shadow chancellor Ed Balls. All coalition members are right to criticise Labour’s terrible economic legacy but even after two years of coalition government and a double-dip recession, Cameron is visibly pushing the same tired lines over and over again. It is not good politics and is increasingly starting to appear desperate.
The hysteria over comments about whether Cameron and Osborne were ‘too posh’ should not have been given as much coverage as it warranted. The reason is that at any point, politicians are accused of being ‘out of touch’ from those outside the Westminster village. This was a story that overlapped with some of the previous week’s articles, but the trend had already begun.
Stories involving spin and sleaze are always damaging and became chronic in both the Major and New Labour years, but for this government and this leadership the issue that would be most alarming would be accusations of incompetence. This of course was the a government coming together in the national interest. Admirers of Cameron’s leadership have always pointed to his ability to look for the practical solutions beyond ideology and his warmness to working with people. Cameron is best when he is bold. Most notably when he used the UK’s veto over the EU fiscal compact and when he famously called Gordon Brown’s bluff in the election that never was in 2008. So why does it appear to be going wrong?
The fact the economy hasn’t grown in 18 months is not helping anybody. The Tories must pure and simply rely on the strength of the economy to win a majority in the next election; and as things stand, that may not happen. The prospect of another hung Parliament and a potential coalition with the Lib Dems is bound to worry many backbenchers. This has inevitably led to questions regarding Cameron and his style of leadership.
A strong theme that emanates from websites such as Conservative Home, is the fact that he is not Mrs Thatcher. Despite being retired from public life and sadly suffering from dementia, Mrs Thatcher is very much the political pin-up for many Tory backbenchers, whereas for Cameron and Osborne, it is more likely to be Tony Blair. They admire Blair’s political intelligence and his ability to win elections, but certainly appear to have ignored his style of presentation.
Fewer special advisors within Number 10 and critically a weak voice from the communications department are making Cameron’s government appear feckless. This government, in only two years, has been radical in its reforms on welfare and education, but its inability to take control over the past two months has made them appear slightly aloof and the poll numbers reflect this.
Any press criticism can be damaging, but it is in the interest of a party, whether political or business to set the record straight. The government needs to get out there on and talk directly to the public. The Conservatives will not win a majority if they fail to make inroads into the north and Cameron and Osborne’s real political legacy will only be judged if they can establish something beyond this Parliament. A reshuffle may help in the short term, but if they are going to win, then they need to be bolder.