Cameron breaches Labour’s Maginot line

by David Talbot

The battle lines for 2015 have begun to be drawn. As Labour’s foot soldiers marched to the beat towards the feted middle ground last week in Manchester, its gun batteries trained their aim onto unfamiliar territory with audacious talk of a Labour “one nation” prime minister. The Tories, retreating in disarray, have receded to their ideological redoubt, and Labour skirmishers have at last engaged with hostile middle England in a first serious advance on the mission to Downing Street.

Or so the Labour hierarchy would have you believe. But they have made a serious tactical error.

The infamous Maginot Line was a fortified defensive line built by the French to protect the Franco-German border. It was a formidable defensive structure, and a feat of military engineering and strategising far beyond the era in which it was built. It lies between 12 to 16 miles in depth and stretched from the Swiss Alps in the south to the Channel in the north. The defensive structure was completed after ten years, just before the outbreak of war, and is estimated in today’s money to have cost the equivalent of nearly €50 trillion.

This is the comparable psychological position the Labour party are now staking their ground upon. The party’s grey beards have assumed that, much like the French army, the Conservatives would become unsteady under fire and surrender without trace when grapeshot thinned the lines. This is a first-class misjudgement. The Conservatives are headed through the Ardennes.

Miliband stole the Tories’ one-nation clothes precisely because David Cameron had forgotten to look after them. The Labour leader was executing a classic New Labour move straight from the Tony Blair’s playbook. But unlike the Blair years the Tories will not move ever-rightwards to placate the rabid tenancy and pander to their core. Cameron, frankly, is far too astute for that. Revitalising the “compassionate conservative” model that launched his leadership some seven years ago, the Conservative leader resolutely refused to fall into Labour’s lazy caricature. Moreover, he fought back and punched through Labour’s lines. Tough language on Labour’s Achilles heel – the deficit – will cut through to the nation’s conscience far more than any high-minded seminar on a 19th century Disraelian ideal.

Cameron was right to ignore those telling him to blow the Tory dog whistle hard and instead listen to those urging a return to the modernising approach. The electorate can still see that Cameron was and is a different kind of Conservative — a compassionate, modern, family man who does not embody the worst of Tory excesses, regardless of the impact of some of his policies.

People like him and they like the idea of him. Cameron and his closest cohorts rightly recognised that their, admittedly very small, likelihood of winning outright the general election of 2015 lies in convincing those who wrestled with their thoughts in 2010.

What held back the Conservative party in the last election was not Cameron, but the perception of the wider Conservative party. He had modernised, but had his party?

So much of Labour’s onslaught on the Conservatives is so deeply unoriginal it allowed Cameron the opportunity to directly rebut them. So welfare reform isn’t “cruel Tories, leaving people to fend for themselves” but a recognition that the only route out of poverty is work – a message that will strike a chord in Labour heartlands.

Pursuing excellence in education isn’t “elitist, old fashioned and out of touch” but a tangible message that the Conservative party understands every parent worries about providing the best start in life for their child. One of the most galling aspects of Cameron’s speech was his wholesale appropriation of academies – a Labour initiative that we used to be proud of.

Most devastating though was the simple sound bite to counter Miliband’s speech; Labour, the prime minister said, are “the party of one notion: more borrowing”.

Focus group after focus group continually highlights that, for whatever the coalition’s economic failures, the public are terrified of Labour’s perceived economic plan. Cameron, in one neat sentence, encapsulated that.

The prime minister failed to win an overall majority in 2010 because he didn’t finish detoxifying his party. A difficult six months is no reason to give up on the project and lurch to right. Cameron used his speech today to show his nation is more than just austerity, and in resisting the temptation to pander to his Thatcherite critics and instead speak to the nation, Cameron has begun, all too easily, to circumnavigate Labour’s best laid defence.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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14 Responses to “Cameron breaches Labour’s Maginot line”

  1. swatantra says:

    Some good points. Cameron certainly seems to have hijacked most of Labours key Policy wins and is the true heir to Blair. But if he sticks to Compassionate Conservatism then, like Peel, he will split their Party into the Borisites and the Cameroons. The fallout will be pretty messy and Labour’s EdM will have to sweep up the mess.

  2. Andrew says:

    “What held back the Conservative party in the last election was not Cameron, but the perception of the wider Conservative party. He had modernised, but had his party?”

    If we accept – through Hug a Hoodie and Hug a Huskie-style PR stunts – that Cameron is, in fact, a moderniser, then why did he fail to modernise his party? Blair was a moderniser who took his arguments to his party, reformed it and won. What/when was Cameron’s “clause 4 moment”? Even if we accept him as a moderniser, Cameron hasn’t come close to doing anything as bold or historic as that. Which leaves him in a Catch-22: either he is not a moderniser, or he is not an effective leader.

  3. JohnB says:

    If you’re a political consultant, remind me not to consult you.

  4. uglyfatbloke says:

    But the Maginot line did not stretch as far as the Channel, so he Nazis just outflanked it.
    Labour will toil to be taken seriously on he economy as long as Balls is on board – not to mention Darling….incidentally, does anybody understand why he is fronting the ‘No’ campaign in the referendum?
    Cameron did manage one bit of good timing this week. ‘Making’ a deal over the referendum at the end of the Tory conference – when there is so much more for pundits to talk and write about – has rather disguised the fact that he lost every part of the referendum negotiations. He got the ‘single question’, but Salmond did n’t really want that anyway…he just wanted to look like he was open to it, but the Tories would n’t have it..nor would Labour or the Glib-Dumbs.
    Now lots of people who would have preferred FFA (or something like it – it is by far the most popular choice) will be pushed into voting ‘Yes’ – which is what Salmond wants.
    The promise of ‘more – but unspecified – devolution if Scots vote ‘No’ is going to be hard to sell to the electorate; it worked in the 1970s, but it’s going to sound fairly hollow now.

  5. Robin Thorpe says:


    I’m afraid I agree with JohnB; I don’t normally go in for writing negative remarks in the comments section but this article adds absolutely nothing to the debate about the future of the Labour Party. You clearly think that Cameron is preferable to Ed Miliband and from your previous posts you like reading history but do you have any practical ideas about what the Labour party should do?
    Do you have any pearls of wisdom from your “extensive experience of local government having been a candidate for the District and County Council in Warwickshire”?

  6. Felix says:

    “The electorate can still see that Cameron was and is a different kind of Conservative — a compassionate, modern, family man who does not embody the worst of Tory excesses”

    I’ve read a fair deal of horse shit on this site, but this takes the biscuit.

  7. David Talbot says:


    Interesting last sentence; I think it is probably more the latter than the former. Cameron was the only candidate in ’05 leadership election who truly got that the Conservative party had to change. Upon his election, then as now, his personal polling far outstrips that of his party. I can only assume therefore that is the unreconstructed elements of his party have done and continue to hold him back. I don’t envisage Cameron being some sort of pioneering, transformational Cons leader – but certainly a figure far ahead of his party at present.


    I am fairly sure the Maginot line was extended to the coast in the mid 1930s, though it was not nearly as well defended as the France-Germany border, for obvious reasons.

    Robin Thorpe,

    Fair enough, I do not write my articles thinking that I am going to please all of the people all of the time. I welcome constructive input, of which JohnB’s was not.

    Au contraire naturally I do think there is a logical line of thought in my musing; namely that the Labour party has tried desperately hard to paint Cameron something that he is not. In times past, this would have worked. During the New Labour years we barely had to try and taint the Conservatives as they did it so readily themselves. But we could always trust them to move rightwards at times or election or peril, and thus automatically disassociation themselves with the mainstream electorate.

    Cameron had a choice to pander to his Right or reaffirm why he was elected in 2005. And by highlighting Labour’s, perceived or otherwise, economic incompetence – he holed any and all smart Labour lines on “one nation” we had last week.

    As to locating my LinkedIn profile, well done.

  8. Jill. says:

    Is this article meant as a joke. Surely it must be. Who the hell thinks Cameron is caring & compassionate? Certainly not the disabled. In better times no employer wants to employ them & there are certainly no jobs now. Certainly not the 32 (on average) people dying every week because of the stress of being called scroungers & made to go through assessment after assessment just because an appeal overturned the Atos (fixed) judgement of being fit for work. Certainly not the families who can’t afford to feed their children & cue up each day at food banks or put a rood over their heads, who have to sleep on the steps of churches, and certainly not the families who recently lost their off spring through starvation. Compassionate Conservatives, don’t make me laugh. Ian Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, David Cameron & Maria Miller will hopefully have to answer in court for the overriding callousness that they’ve treated the sick & disabled to, taking away the very independence of the disabled the Paralympics showed just the other month.

  9. Jon says:

    “What/when was Cameron’s “clause 4 moment”? Even if we accept him as a moderniser, Cameron hasn’t come close to doing anything as bold or historic as that.” – Andrew

    Two differences, I think:

    The Conservatives haven’t had to concede a point as striking as Clause 4. And after losing the argument for the aim (in the eyes of the electorate) they haven’t kept such a policy for a period of time afterwards.

  10. Jonathan says:

    Now who are you supposed to be writing for again? Surely this article would gently fit into the Telegraph’s editoral.
    Cameron maybe a smooth operator but his cabinet is full of rightwingers desperate to pull the tories closer to UKIP rather than the centre ground.
    Cameron is a classy operator but really is shortsighted if he can’t see that by the next General Election the Tories will be twice as toxic on the economy to the electorate as the Quad of the Muppets Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander who refuse to budge from the disastorous Plan A which is sucking demand out of the economy faster than Usain Bolt.
    Cameron may escape unscathed but his party wants Boris and wants more attacks on the poor and more attacks on workers rights.
    Labour has to be careful but with Cameron’s buddies of Brooks, Coulson and et al all in Crown Court on trial for numerous offences it could and will become extremely messy next conference for Dave.

  11. Amber Star says:

    One Nation is big, open & welcoming. One notion is defensive, petty & bordering on spiteful.

    I have noticed in many gatherings, business meetings included, that people prefer the big, inclusive, positive idea to any cynical, withering put-down, regardless of how witty or incisive the put-down is (& I’m not sure that Cameron’s one notion quip could lay claim to being either particularly witty or incisive but you appear to think it is).

  12. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Uglyfatbloke

    “Labour will toil to be taken seriously on he economy as long as Balls is on board”

    Are you serious ? Ed Balls is about as toxic as it comes. He’s even conducted private polling to find out why he’s so unpopular. Bear in mind he was one of Brown’s crony hit squad and the public know this.

    As the blog says Cameron has refused to be pulled to the right by his party, but the public know that Ed 1% Miliband is in the pay of the unions and member of the loony left are appearing all over the media: cue Owen Jones who doesn’t know the difference between income and wealth according to his whining on Newsnight.

    @ Robin Thorpe

    Robin…newsflash…..every poll puts Cameron way above Miliband in the publics eyes.

    If you’re looking for practical suggestions, then here’s one: leadership contest with David Miliband elected leader. Instant credibility with joe public and a done deal for Labour at the next election.

  13. Ex-Labour says:

    @ Uglyfatbloke

    Skip my comment. Just put my glasses on and I agree with you. Ed Balls , no, no
    and thrice no !

    OK fella 8–))

  14. Robert says:

    David Talbot clearly prefers David Cameron to Ed Miliband. He is entitled to his opinion!

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