28 April 2011

Cameron: the airbrush is off

The Tory election campaign of 2010 underperformed spectacularly compared with what their activists had hoped for, securing barely 1 percent of the vote more than a damaged and fading Tony Blair managed for Labour 5 years before - and not even being able to secure a majority despite being 7 points clear of Labour, who ran their worst campaign since 1983. However, if it hadn't been for the slight "detoxification" of the Tory brand under Dave Cameron compared with his predecessor Michael Howard, there is reason to think the result could have been even worse. The Tories had been stuck in the 31-33% vote share range since 1997. Another "nasty party" campaign, along the lines of the 2005 campaign where they majored on anti-immigration, might even have meant Labour emerging as the largest party in terms of number of MPs, and perhaps staying in office - even with Gordon Brown as leader.

Now that would have been an extraordinary result, and possibly the pretext for civil unrest; but the personal popularity of Cameron did manage to get the Tories that 3% extra of votes which gave them 307 seats, and made it very hard for the Lib Dems to do a deal with anyone else but them.

The Cameron posters were airbrushed, and ludicrously simplistic; but the personality cult approach can win elections. Remember the 1997 Labour manifesto - a huge picture of Tony Blair and the phrase "New Labour - because Britain deserves better?" Likewise the SNP coasting to victory in this year's Holyrood elections due to the personal popularity of Alex Salmond.

But of course, the problem with basing your party's appeal on the leader's personality is that the politician behind the airbrush needs to confirm the electorate's image of him or her once the tricky business of governing starts. For this to work, one of two things needs to happen. Either the leader needs to be genuinely "what you see is what you get". Or he/she needs to be a very good actor. Few PMs are the former (in a weird sense Gordon Brown was, but only because he lacked the interpersonal skills to present any other image, and unfortunately it wasn't an image that many of us cared for). Many are the latter - Blair (although less and less as he went on as he stopped giving a tweet what the voters thought of him), Major (remember all that stuff about 'back to basics' when he was f***ing Edwina Currie?) and also Thatcher (a far less self-assured figure in private than she came across in public).

The problem for Dave Cameron is that when the airbrush is off and he is in a tight corner, the real Dave starts to poke through the veneer to the voters. And the real Dave is an arrogant, vicious sexist prat - a sub-Boris Johnson figure in many ways. We're seeing this more and more: whenever Dave comes under pressure at PMQs (which due to the sterling efforts of Ed Miliband, is pretty much every week), he degenerates into a Tory student activist. Thus, yesterday we had Dave channelling Michael Winner as he told Shadow Chief Secretary Angela Eagle to "calm down dear"; and last week we had Dave saying that he couldn't see anything wrong with internships being given out to friends and family on an un-advertised basis rather than paid and advertised (which, whatever his other faults, Nick Clegg had been pushing for). And all the while we have had Dave spinning a web of lies on the supposed benefits of First Past the Post compared with the Alternative Vote.

Combined with the fact that the ConDem programme for government - including such delights as the privatisation of the NHS and most other public services, the virtual abolition of large parts of the social security system, and cuts in corporation tax combined with hikes in VAT - is unreconstructed Thatcherism, whatever the Fib Dems try to tell you - this is a toxic combination for the Tories at the next election. Yes, they are still maintaining that 36% from 2010 in the current polls - but this implies that ALL of the lost vote share of the Fib Dems (since Nick Clegg pretty much told his left-wing voters to piss off) has leaked to Labour, and none to the Tories. And so Labour is 5 to 10 points ahead of the Tories on most polls. That's probably enough to win a general election even with FPTP and even with redrawn constituencies.

Dave's only serious hope for re-election is to reach out to swing voters - which means maintaining the fiction of Nice Dave. But Nasty Dave is more and more in evidence. And that - combined with the generosity of Nick Clegg in telling the majority of his voters to piss off to Labour - is something that Ed Miliband should be mighty thankful for.

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