Cameron is a class act, a worthy opponent. So we must nail him now.

by Kevin Meagher

Ed Miliband was right in his New Year message. 2011 is a year of consequences. This is the year Labour really has to nail David Cameron. Once and for all. For five years he has slipped through the party’s fingers with one failed attempt to characterise him after another.

First we had “Dave the chameleon”. Cameron was a chancer; all things to all people. Then we had the toff-bashing fun of the Crewe by-election: a stunt that grew into the entire campaign, with predictably calamitous results. Then we had “Mr 10%” – the amount that a pre-election Cameron was said to want to cut from public spending. A line which no less an authority than Douglas Alexander recently lamented had been quite useless.

Tony Blair once chided Cameron that he would not withstand the “big clunking fist” of Gordon Brown. But Cameron has instead shown that he has a decent chin. Then we had Brown’s repeated charge that he was “all style, but no substance”. That is not a crime in modern politics; as, indeed, Blair testifies.

The chameleon jibe contained a truth. Perhaps, also, a sneaking accolade. Cameron has proved adept at blending into the scenery, eluding predators.

Of course, it was easier with his predecessors. Major was a grey facsimile of Thatcher. Hague was an unpopular populist. Iain Duncan-Smith was a guileless dilettante. Meanwhile, no-one on the Labour side could better Ann Widdecombe’s description of the vampiric Michael Howard as having “something of the night” about him.

Finding a chink in the armour of the Tory leader is not a parlour game, however. Capturing the essence of Cameron, the Teflon Tory, is the key to curtailing this government’s longevity. He is the man who holds it all together; the glue that binds together this fissiparous bunch.

To melt the mucilage, Labour needs to start by paying credit where it is due. David Cameron is a formidable opponent: slippery, resilient and quick on his feet. He reverses out of setbacks and pulls off handbrake u-turns with impressive nonchalance. When the tipping point is reached and Andy Coulson finally becomes more liability than asset, his execution will be swift and businesslike. Cameron is no slouch when it comes to chutzpah and low skulduggery.

But he can also rise to the occasion. Cameron is often gracious at the dispatch box. He managed a well-pitched response to the publication of Lord Saville’s report into “bloody Sunday” – the nearest thing he has so far faced to a “Diana moment”.

Temperamentally he seems suited to the premiership, exuding a practiced reasonableness to all. A father of the nation in the making. Or so he thinks.

What matters, of course, is the damage his retrograde programme of reforms will inflict on millions of lives this year. But the brio with which Cameron has charted a new course in whole areas of policy exposes Labour’s timidity in government. Fortune does indeed favour the brave. Even his polling numbers are holding up.

Yet Cameron sits on a powder-keg government. His relationship with his Tory tribe, let alone that of the fractious Lib Dem cuckoos with whom he is obliged to share a nest, remains strained. His party has never fully bought into his modernising project. His backbenchers moan that they are being ignored. But, like Tony Blair, Cameron calculates that they will put up with pretty much anything he dishes out, so glad are they after so long to be in power.

Unlike his recent predecessors, Cameron has no night sweats worrying about rivals. He has none. There is no one within his party capable of touching him. And he knows it. This coalition deal is his deal. He was the one who made a “big comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems. The concordat with Nick Clegg is down to their personal chemistry as much as anything else. Two amiable men of similar age and privileged background who do not believe in much.

Cameron remains relaxed. He might as well. There are simply too many variables outside his direct control. Coalition politics has little truck with top down control-freakery. And the reality is that the largely unreconstructed Tories are still capable of “nasty party” spasms. But, unlike Blair, Cameron does not need outriders to protect him. The modernising vanguard within the Conservative party is not poisoned by the silly personality feuds of the New Labour era.

And, unlike either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, Cameron is an instinctive delegator. Or, to put it another way, he gives his ministers enough rope to hang themselves. Cock-up braggadocios like Vince Cable and Lord Young are quickly humbled. When Andrew Lansley’s scorched earth NHS reforms eventually lead to disaster, the piano will fall four-square on his head, not on Cameron’s. The same will go for the luckless Michael Gove. Or anyone else. Cameron has already said that he would sack his closest ally, George Osborne, if need be.

Nevertheless, the weaknesses in Cameron’s game remain. He has poor long-term intuitive judgement. Huskies and happiness have helped detoxify the Tory brand, but his signature idea – the big society – remains as flaky as a rhinoceros with eczema. As an animating theme of government policy, it makes Tony Blair’s nebulous third way look as definitive as a railway timetable.

Neither has he come in for much forensic scrutiny. If Cameron had been in charge during the height of the credit crunch, we would be living in a Mad Max post-apocalyptic wasteland right now. He could not have been more wrong about what needed to happen to defibrillate the financial sector. Not merely indecisive, but lightweight and unconvincing too. So was George Osborne, as American embassy officials so acutely noted in their leaked cables.

In the grand scheme of things, having poor judgement on big questions must count as the cardinal vice of any political leader. Gordon Brown being spot–on about recapitalising the banks and having the political heft to get his way will gain the history books’ approbation, if not the voters’.

Cold comfort, perhaps. Because just as Napoleon only ever wanted lucky generals, so fortune smiles on Cameron as she never did on Brown.

Hence attacks on Cameron’s well-heeled background have so far bounced clean off. But, as a blue-blooded multi-millionaire old Etonian, he is continually vulnerable to the charge that he does not – perhaps he cannot – empathise with the real life concerns of ordinary people.

Understanding the “temper of the times”, as Disraeli put it, will be a constant challenge for this cabinet of millionaires as they impose their age of austerity upon us. More photos of Osborne in ski-ing garb please.

There is, of course, another side to Cameron. He is a hands-on dad. He has a post-modern sense of humour. Despite what Jonny Marr thinks, I’m sure Cameron is a genuine Smiths fan. Or at least thinks he is. And I’ll bet he still dons his trendy trainers when the camera lenses are not pointing. The fact is, he can be all these things at once. It does not make him a phoney, it just makes him a man of our complex times.

This is his real significance. He embodies the ambiguities of the post-ideological, post-tribal, intellectually promiscuous politics that a valedictory Tony Blair warned of. This means that Labour’s fightback may be harder than many assume.

It is not enough to wait in expectation that the savagery of the impending cuts will destroy Cameron’s popularity and rock the pendulum leftwards again. Neither will it suffice to hope that queasy Lib Dems will call time on the coalition deal. Labour needs to force the pace. Which means finding a cut-through message that ensnares Cameron and ties the impending misery of coming months to his flawed decisions.

The consequences of not doing are stark. The Tories spent years failing to nail Tony Blair. After lurching down one blind alley after another they gave up and simply waited for him to pack in. The spontaneous applause that greeted Blair’s final dispatch box performance from the Conservative benches owed much to their sneaking regard for a worthy opponent; and a realisation they were finally back in the game. But it took a decade.

We may be at the top of a roller-coaster year and the breakneck twists and turns to come may destroy this government. That becomes all the more likely if Cameron is called upon to make big, game-changing decisions. His quota of good luck is running out. He has had a serene first half-year; let’s see how he copes under real pressure.

But if he is not bang to rights for the devastation that 2011 promises to bring to millions of families, then Labour will have failed at a strategic level. By next Christmas, Cameron should be where Clegg is this yuletide.

Of course, Nick Clegg’s travails have given Labour some enjoyable sport for the past few months. But it’s the organ grinder who matters. Only by finally nailing David William Donald Cameron will Labour seize the high ground in this parliament. Cameron has been an elusive quarry for Labour. The party has missed enough chances; 2011 is the year he must be caught, skinned and mounted on a wall.

Kevin Meagher is a campaign consultant and fomer mininsterial adviser.

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11 Responses to “Cameron is a class act, a worthy opponent. So we must nail him now.”

  1. William says:

    ‘Caught, skinned and mounted on a wall’.KM is a campaign consultant and former ministerial adviser.Do you seriously suggest that the normal voter would choose a party whose employees think and write in these terms?

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    William, oh shut up. He’s talking figuratively.

  3. Very good, Kevin. Thank you. You rightly say:

    “It is not enough to wait in expectation that the savagery of the impending cuts will destroy Cameron’s popularity and rock the pendulum leftwards again. Neither will it suffice to hope that queasy Lib Dems will call time on the coalition deal.”

    Nor is it enough to hope that the Tory tribe will call time on PM Cameron. You correctly note both the strains in the relationship between the PM and the Tory backbenches and the low probability that these strains will bring down the PM:

    “His relationship with his Tory tribe, let alone that of the fractious Lib Dem cuckoos with whom he is obliged to share a nest, remains strained. His party has never fully bought into his modernising project. His backbenchers moan that they are being ignored. But, like Tony Blair, Cameron calculates that they will put up with pretty much anything he dishes out, so glad are they after so long to be in power.”

    Equally, however, you also right in saying that this means that Cameron sits atop a “powder-keg government”. More open and stronger divisions between “mainstream” and “liberal” conservatives are likely to add to this powder over the next year. To say nothing of the strains between the front and backbenches of the other party in his government. But we’ve probably spent enough time goading Nick Clegg and trying to widen differences within his party and not done enough to exploit the tensions between “mainstream” and “liberal” conservatives.

    If we are to play any tactical games with the other parties, I’d like our tactical games to put more focus on divisions within the Tories, rather than the Lib Dems. But the bigger strategic challenge is to fully recover our identity. Southern Discomfort Again shows how spectacularly out of kilter popular perceptions of Labour are from self-perceptions or perceptions that would be compatible with us returning to government.

    Rectifying this will take much time and effort but should be the highest priority for us. It may not be, in spite of the undoubtedly powder-keg nature of the government, until we have completed this task, and changed perceptions of ourselves, that we are able to either successfully challenge perceptions of the other parties or nail this very Teflon PM.

  4. I was watching Cameron’s performance live on my TV when he was at the despatch box the day he, on behalf of the British Government, said “sorry” for Bloody Sunday. It was a remarkable display, made all the more poignant by the sensitivity he demonstrated towards the MP for Foyle, Mark Durkhan, who had made quite an emotional speech to the House. I’ll never forget it, it was just one of those rare but brilliant parliamentary moments that will doubtless be remembered many years from now, at least by many people here in Northern Ireland – and rightly so.

    Though, in general, I’m not convinced by David Cameron in the Commons. I think as pointed out in the article, he has managed to escape from being pinned down by Labour. I find it more credible to believe it is Teflon Clegg that has saved him from our attention as Labour has concentrated its fire with great precision and effect upon the embattled Lib Dem leader and his thin yellow line of semi-loyal ministers and MPs.

    I agree that the focus needs to turn now to Cameron. My instinct about his performance in the Commons is that he is not as comfortable as many portray him to be. Not taking a hit is different from taking an effective hit and responding strongly to it. He has never really had to prove the latter so the jury is out. Put him under the right kind of pressure and I think he’ll be in trouble. The pity is that due to Labour’s focus on Clegg, Cameron has grown in confidence so I agree that the trajectory of Labour’s artillery needs to shift to ensure that Cameron is caught, skinned and splattered onto the walls of the House….figuratively speaking.

  5. steve howard says:

    I agree with what Johnathon Todd says. While the labour opposition are busy aiming at the leaders the sychophants will crowd around, and goodness knows there are enough of them. Maybe once the rank and file start to be picked off it will give the two leaders something to really worry about for while they will drop anyone who rocks the boat or causes embarrasment the rest of the crew will row like mad to keep the ship afloat.
    A few well chosen disaffected former front benchers will do more harm to the terrible duo than any other attempts form outside. So far CAmeron hasnt had to look over his shoulder, something he clearly dreads as he let a fruedian slip at a PMQ’s not so long ago when he aimed a swipe at Ed. So once slippy Dave starts to look over his shoulder he will forget where he is heading….. Come on Labour give him a few real malcontents. Cable will eventually go anyway. Now is the time to focus on some of the other pawns….

  6. Gary says:

    You’re absolutely right that people who assume the cuts will turn Cameron into the most hated PM ever and will therefore return Labour to office in 2015 (or before) are dangerously wide of the mark.

    The cuts will cause immense harm, and will result in anger; this much is obvious. The question is where will voters look to take their anger out. If Cameron succeeds in continuing his theme that ‘Labour caused the defecit’, and people continue to buy into this idea that the cuts are necessary because of the bad decisions made by the Labour government, it will be a re-run of 1979. As in the Labour Party could be in the wilderness for a long, long time.

    This is where Cameron needs to be tackled first and foremost.

  7. Kevin says:

    Jonathan – I think you’re right. It must be a pretty strange sort of atmosphere inside the Conservative party at the moment. A year ago they thought they had the election in the bag. Then they discover that they have to share the throne with the Lib Dems, as their manifesto heads for the bin. Worse still, some of their number want this relationship to go on and on!

    We’ve focused on the psychodrama in the Lib Dems but the bigger issue is of course the state of the Tories. Lord Kilmuir famously said “loyalty is the Tory party’s secret weapon”. Yet 73 Tory MPs have already voted against their own government so far.

    I still think Cameron calculates that he can largely ignore them as they have nowhere else to go. But if there is a run of issues that galvanises backbench opinion then who knows?

  8. William says:

    Another policy vacuum from Rob Marchant and Jonathan Todd.Slanging off the government is the politics of the playground.Southern Discomfort? Until a Labour leader can win over the south,we can only dream about a future Labour government.

  9. DMAshton says:

    The electorate is not stupid enough to take seriously what the Labour Party says about David Camerson because they understand the Labour Party’s motives for what it says and does. Attempting to do so will only backfire and reinforce the reason that people are cynical of politicians and politics more generally: the idea that politicians will say anything to voters if it helps their cause.

    Why not focus on what Labour really thinks is right or wrong about what the tories are doing – maybe one day people will begin to believe again that the party is driven by motives other than self-serving ones.

  10. Kevin – Thank you.

    Ian Birrell, Cameron’s former speechwriter, is interesting in the FT today. He concludes:

    “The biggest concern for the Tories is not an excess of liberalism in government. It is that the government has to present progressive measures as concessions to the Lib Dems following their meltdown in opinion polls. This can make the Conservatives appear reactionary when many issues are, in reality, cutting across party lines in cabinet. The alliance between Mr Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith was vital for ensuring welfare reform was not stymied by lack of cash, while there are critics of the immigration cap, control orders, and traditional law and order policies among leading Tories as well as Lib Dems.

    “But as it is, the need to shore up the Lib Dems and the impression this gives of an unreconstructed Conservative party make it harder to persuade floating voters to return to the fold at the next election. The decontamination of the Tory brand remains the central issue for the party – not its death.”

    You are right that there must be a pretty strange sort of atmosphere inside the Conservative party at the moment. To perhaps simplify, mainstream conservatives were never wholly convinced by Cameron’s detoxification strategy, consider it not authentically Tory and believe that a genuinely Tory platform could have delivered a Conservative government at the last general election. They include the 73 Tory MPs that have already voted against the government. In contrast, liberal conservatives always believed in the detoxification strategy and, as reading between the lines of George Osborne’s recent interviews in the Spectator and on the Today programme attest, as well as this Birrell piece, continue to do so and wish it to be taken to the next stage.

    Who will win out between the liberal and mainstream conservatives?

    It’s hard to see the leading liberal Tory, David Cameron, not being PM or being significantly threatened in this position so long as Tory opinion poll performance remains as strong as it is. However, the liberal conservative strategy for building from this position to a conservative majority – completing the decontamination of the Tory brand – is compromised, as Birrell acknowledges, by the possibility that the policy steps that need to be taken to achieve this may be interpreted as Liberal Democrat gains from government.

    Nick Clegg may have provided Cameron a human shield but he’s not going to shout the decontamination of the Tories from the rooftops. He is going to claim what vaguely progressive things the government does as Liberal Democrat wins. And if Clegg doesn’t other members of his party will. But liberal conservatives need to claim these same things as things which they would have done in government irrespective of the Liberal Democrats – a claim undermined by Liberal Democrat ownership of them – for their decontamination to complete. Mainstream conservatives neither believe in these policies nor think further decontamination necessary.

    There are a set of potentially combustible tensions in play here which will be more likely to prove lethal to Cameron if the opinion poll performance of the Tories slips significantly. However, as I said yesterday, our direct focus shouldn’t be upon trying to spark these explosions and to aside the political scene by default. But to change perceptions of ourselves such that people have positive reasons to back Labour. Southern Discomfort Again shows that this is no little task. But once we’ve completed it we’ll be better able to exploit Cameron’s undoubted vulnerabilities.

    Our great advantage is that we are ideological united, unlike the other parties, and should, therefore, be better able to develop a policy platform that all in the party can wholeheartedly campaign for. I’m doubtful that either of the other parties will be capable of getting to that point in this parliament. Going into a general election with a more clearly united party and a genuinely enthused one are significant advantages, which should be achievable for us.

  11. Despite what seemingly every political analyst would have you believe, william, Labour can win quite easily whilst losing the south fairly comprehensively.

    We did very badly in the south in 2010, but it’s a big place and we should expect to lose most of it. Even in 1997 we only won around a quarter of the seats in East Anglia, the South-East and the South-West. We can get a perfectly respectable majority just by doing well in provincial cities, London commuter towns and a couple of economically marginal areas on the coast.

    These areas do not react in exactly the same way as the south as a whole and Southern Discomfort Again’s major flaw (amidst a couple of dozen minor ones) is that it doesn’t acknowledge the multiplicity of souths there are. Labour only needs a few of them.

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