Thursday, December 08, 2005
Dave still has a Mountain to climb
The meteoric arrival of David Cameron onto the political scene is going to transform a whole host of political equations. It all depends on how he progresses but his PMQ debut was certainly the most impressive since the arrival of Blair himself after winning the leadership contest in 1994.
Will he lead his party to success at the next election? He faces a number of problems:
Barriers to an Election Victory
a) His attempt to deploy a thrust for the centre is undermined by his voting record. Jonathan Freedland, in yesterday’s Guardian listed the rightwing voting record which his ‘compassionate’ aspirations disguises, comparing him to George Bush who emerged as a neo-con wolf from under the sheep’s clothing of similar early ‘compassionate’ rhetoric. His shadow cabinet is also quite a rightwing bunch of politicians. The public might well be repelled by such a realization should it come to pass.
b) So far he has dealt in generalities but as soon as he comes to grips with detail he lays himself open to attack e.g. his promise to support the education plans of Blair will prove embarrassing if spending plans in that area conflict with any of Osborne’s tax cutting plans. Blair and Brown have in their arsenal a constant and disabling question: ‘Are you willing to maintain funding? And if not, where will cuts be made?’ Cameron will find these hard questions to answer in a climate which has long ago accepted the need for more funding of public services.
c) Cameron has to transform his party. All three of predecessors began by pitching for the centre but then found, when no penetration occurred, that they had to swing back to the right to shore up a crumbling core vote. Cameron has about six months to succeed in his attempt to change the ‘nasty’ rightwing party into the ‘nice’ touchy feely, women and ethnic minority friendly set-up he needs as a foundation for his assault on Blair’s still powerful position.
d) Conservatives on Wednesday morning trailed Labour on all but two issues- crime and education- and face huge leads over the economy for example. They also trail Labour in the polls by some six points when- after a disastrous period for Blair, they should be at least level pegging.
e) To win at the next election Cameron needs a 9% swing- a huge requirement by any standards. It can be done but even Maggie never managed that sort of swing.
f) Cameron has only just begun- Hague enjoyed a brief honeymoon but began to strike the wrong poses almost immediately- remember that baseball cap? It is crucial that Cameron and his team do not make wrong choices over the next month. This means Labour can damage him if they can make negative messages about the young old Etonian penetrate the national consciousness.
If Cameron starts to knock spots off Blair Brown might feel strengthened as it will expose a PM too tired to deal with the new kid on the block. But Brown will wish to repulse the new threat too as from now on every threat to Blair is a threat to Brown’s anticipated short period in power between taking over and then facing the electorate. Recent behaviour suggests a renascent Tory party will actually improve Brown-Blair cooperation.
Cameron has tried to separate Blair from his party by offering to support education reforms. This stategy is subtle and potentially devastating as it could make Blair appear to be a modern Ramsay MacDonald- a traitor to his party. If Blair is dependent on Tory votes it will incense Labour loyalists and rebels alike. To remove a sitting Labour PM is difficult. Any faction wishing to remove Blair needs 20% support from the PLP plus a two thirds vote at the annual conference- an unlikely scenario. But the second condition is unlikely to be necessary; if enough Labour MPs sign up to get rid of him, he will have to go, just as Thatcher had to recognize in November 1990 that she had lost the allegiance of too big a slice of her party to carry on.
Cameron’s best quip during PMQs was ‘You were the future once.’ This mantra of youth we’ll hear being incanted right up to election day. Osborne and Cameron and their Notting –Hillers are convinced their trump card is their youth and vitality compared with Blair and company’s clapped out appearance and growing agenda of intractable political problems. But they should not forget that old lions can still kill; Blair is the most accomplished political communicator in the western world and Brown has a record which no Chancellor or finance minister in the world can match. Like the England tyros against the Aussies, the Ashes victory was always possible but they had to play out of their skins to win and even then nearly didn’t make it.
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