The opinion polls still maintain the ability to shock. The latest survey from YouGov puts the Lib Dems on 34%, the Conservatives in second on 31% and Labour trailing in third on an astonishing 26%. Whether or not you believe the picture the opinion polls are painting, one thing is clear: the Tories are somehow managing to blow the best opportunity they’ve had in eighteen years. Given the obvious unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s government and the clear public appetite for ‘change’ – not to mention the considerable means at David Cameron’s disposal – how on earth have the Tories failed so spectacularly to make a meaningful impression on the 2010 General Election?
Let’s have a look at what the Tories have in their favour.
In David Cameron they have (on the face of it) a young, energetic leader who has tried hard to ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand and bury the “Nasty Party” label once and for all. They’re up against an ailing, exhausted government led by an uncharismatic PM who also happens to lead an unpopular, financially-strapped party. Gordon Brown has, rightly or wrongly, become a symbol for Britain’s share of the international economic crisis and presides over a period of record, unimaginable government debt. The Tories have the unrivalled support of the bulk of the British press and they have a huge, historic political operation backed by the vast sums relentlessly pumped in by Lord Ashcroft and numerous other super-wealthy donors. Most of all they have a country howling out for change with a voting system which makes their job so much easier than that of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.
Yet with all of those advantages David Cameron’s Tories are polling at the same level as Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague.
So where is it all going wrong?
The real random element to this election has been the expenses scandal. It’s quite possible that even the Daily Telegraph don’t realise the profound effect their exposé on the subject may well have had on the political history of Britain. Voters, while always dubious of their political establishment, finally had something to pin their suspicions on when the stories of duck islands and moat dredging hit the front pages. While Cameron put up a brave effort in promising the reform of politics, it was clear that most of the worst excesses had come from the Tory Party. Try as he might, any attempt by Cameron to distance himself and his party from the ‘Establishment’ was never really going to ring true.
I suppose it must have been around that time that the Shadow Cabinet’s Old Etonian image (not helped by all those old Bullingdon Club photos) started to become something of a liability. What had perhaps started off as a novelty – a flashback to a safer era when we all just did as we were told – began to grate a little and carried with it an unfortunate air of entitlement. George Osborne, not only a surprisingly voter-repellent choice as would-be Chancellor, continually seems to embody this trait (despite the fact he ‘only’ went to St Paul’s).
Osborne, of course, has also hampered the Tory effort by making a number of questionable calls on the economic crisis (bank bailout, marriage tax, spending cuts). This in turn must raise some questions about Cameron’s judgement in appointing him the man in charge of the Tories campaign effort – more a favour to an old friend than an example of deep thought in the mind of our next Prime Minister?
Cameron himself has probably not benefitted from such a long time in the Opposition Leader’s hotseat. Whereas once he may have seemed a breath of fresh air (“he was the future once”) as the months and years have worn on he’s started to seem angrier, more shrill, more entitled. Perhaps that last failing is his biggest – the British electorate have never taken too kindly to arrogance and triumphalism (remember Kinnock at Sheffield?) and Cameron’s weekly ‘Punch and Judy’ turn at Prime Minister’s Questions is hardly a great advert for Tory humility.
Of course there’s still a long way to go in the 2010 General Election. There’s more than a slight chance that the Tories will start to make use of one or two of the tools at their disposal and end up scraping over the line. But a lead opposition party, with all the advantages that the Tories have had, should have had this one sewn up months ago. Cameron is known to be a keen admirer of the original New Labour project, but the main difference between now and 1997 is that Tony Blair was miles into the distance by this point in the campaign. Blair’s success led to his victory over the old guard who had doubted him within his own party. Cameron’s failure may leave him at the mercy of his party’s much more seasoned equivalent.