by Atul Hatwal
If the Conservatives win the next election, David Cameron has turned himself into a bystander in his next government.
By pre-announcing his resignation he’s dissolved his future authority with backbenchers, who will be more interested in winning the favour of the next leader, and shifted the media lens onto his potential successors. The question of when he will resign – because he surely won’t last a full term – will dog him each day and ultimately he will struggle for relevance. He’s condemned himself to a living political death.
In the wake of such an extraordinary unforced error, Labour’s chosen line of attack is that Cameron is taking the electorate for granted by assuming he will win the next election. It fits with Labour’s broader critique of him and in that sense is logical, but it’s also wrong.
Two of David Cameron’s greatest political assets are his double digit lead over Ed Miliband as the public’s preference for PM and the extent to which he personally outpolls his party.
David Cameron’s telegraphed resignation is the very antithesis of leadership; it’s the epitome of weakness and raises the likelihood that any one of a gaggle of unappealing Tories could be prime minister in the next Parliament. Suddenly, there might be some hope for Labour.
Instead of talking about arrogance, Labour should be recasting the leadership choice at this election as one between Ed Miliband and the dangerous unknown.
There are two aspects to this.
First, the message should be hammered home that David Cameron is about to quit on the British people in the next Parliament.
He’ll respond at every turn that he’ll serve a full term but the damage will be cumulative.
This is a variant of what was described to me once when I was a junior party press officer (twenty years ago, in less enlightened times) as the “wife beater strategy”. No matter how virtuous or righteous the politician, forcing them to say repeatedly that they did not beat their wife would make them seem guilty of exactly that.
By the same token, the more David Cameron is forced to say he’ll serve out the full term, the greater the doubt that will be raised in the public’s mind, not least because there is an army of disgruntled Tory candidates who will happily brief any passing member of the media that David Cameron is a political dead man walking.
The second aspect would be to fill the Tory leadership vacuum that David Cameron has so helpfully created by showing the public who might be prime minister if the Tories win again.
There are plenty of negatives to George Osborne, Theresa May and Boris Johnson as leader, but why stop there? What about Iain Duncan Smith, or Liam Fox?
The validation of being targeted as a future prime minister by Labour and allure of being discussed as such in the media would be an intoxicating elixir for future Conservative leadership candidates. Most would not knock down the story with the alacrity required in a general election campaign. Why should they? The race that they are all interested in is the Tory leadership, not the current campaign. And all the while these stories ran, and the briefing proliferated, David Cameron would become more and more marginalised.
Reconnecting the Tories’ choice for prime minister with the worst of their brand would go a long way towards tackling Ed Miliband’s well known negatives with the public. The election is a comparative choice, and while Labour’s leader will never be a candidate of popular acclaim, if the alternative is an unpalatable Tory, he could yet win.
Attacking David Cameron for being an arrogant, out of touch Tory might appeal to Labour’s activist base but it’s not going to win over wavering voters. No-one will suddenly be disabused of the notion that David Cameron is a horny handed son of toil. Defining him as a quitter who will hand the keys to 10 Downing Street to a Tory Freddy Krueger? Now that could make things interesting.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut