Thursday, 17 July 2008

Timing is everything for David Cameron

The fortunes of the Conservative Party in opinion polls changed dramatically last autumn during and immediately after their annual party conference. Two gaffes by Gordon Brown and one policy announcement by the Conservatives switched the polls overnight and Mr Brown's position has weakened ever since. It is worth looking at those events because I believe they justify Mr Cameron playing a waiting game and leaving the announcement of radical policies until quite close to the general election.

There is a long standing convention that all three major parties should be allowed a fair hearing during their party conferences. This does not mean that their opponents cannot talk about or criticise policy announcements made during the conference season, but it does mean that no other party makes policy announcements or engages in a publicity seeking exercise when it is someone else's turn to be heard. The convention merely reflects a fair approach to political debate and I have a strong belief in the essential fairness of the vast majority of people in this country.

Gordon Brown appears to have been at home with a bad cold the day fairness lessons were being taught at his primary school. He decided to try to upstage the Conservative conference by visiting troops in Iraq and making sure the press and television covered his visit fully. While there he announced that there was to be a reduction in troop numbers in Iraq by Christmas, only for his figures to fall round his ankles like knickers with weak elastic no sooner than he had uttered the words. In this double-headed attempt to show strength he displayed massive misjudgment. As a result, many who were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt as a new Prime Minister withdrew their goodwill. It was a double-gaffe of massive proportions.

Added to that, the Conservatives made a policy announcement on Inheritance Tax which captured the national mood. The issue of Inheritance Tax deserves a musing of its own, for present purposes all that need be said is that the Conservatives' policy announcement was looked on favourably by the British public.

Since then the opinion polls have moved steadily in favour of the Conservatives and Mr Cameron to such an extent that something quite dramatic would be necessary for Labour to remain in government after the next general election.

We can quibble about the significance of opinion polls at this stage in a parliament, but I suggest that Mr Cameron can rely on the figures until such time as the tide show any sign of turning. His greatest challenge is to ensure that he does not lose support by making mistakes. A mistake that results in no loss of support is not a problem, what he must avoid is giving the government a rod with which to beat his back.

Many of us are old enough to have vivid memories of the the early 1990s. John Major had taken over as Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher in late 1990 with only 18 months to go until the next election. His party suffered internal strife and was showing signs of being stale, having been in government with substantial majorities for over 11 years. In the run-up to the 1992 general election Labour was polling quite strongly and many thought the election was theirs to lose. Lose it they did. There had been doubts about the capability of their leader, Neil Kinnock, to fill the role of Prime Minister effectively. One might think he would have concentrated on staying calm and appearing to be statesmanlike, but in a massive error of judgment he held a party rally shortly before the election in which he unashamedly acted as though the election had been won. Just like Mr Brown's error in visiting Iraq when he did rather than a week later, Mr Kinnock's decision to hold a victory rally at the wrong time cost him dear. Timing was everything and his timing was as wrong as it could have been.

Mr Cameron has reached his present position on the policies he has announced to date. Many will need refining over the next two years, some will have to be replaced entirely due to changes in circumstances and in some areas there is still to be a major policy announcement. The key political consideration in the timing of refinement, replacement and announcement is how it might play with the voters. If it appears that the government's position in a particular field will become weaker, he must wait until Labour is in the deepest possible hole before he chooses the spade with which to pile the soil on top of them.

The area in which the government is most vulnerable is the economy. Mr Brown's shocking lies about the effect of the abolition of the 10p starting rate of income tax (remember, he said no one would lose as a result) required a humiliating supplementary budget which did the government more harm than good. The harm it did to the government was five-fold: (i) it showed that Mr Brown's decision to abolish the 10p rate was flawed, (ii) it showed he had lied in saying there would be no losers, (iii) it showed disregard for low-paid people by not giving full compensation to everyone affected, (iv) it added significantly to government debt at a time when Mr Brown and his hapless puppet chancellor were proclaiming the need to control debt and (v) its timing, just before a by-election, made it look like a bribe handed out reluctantly in order to save a seat in Parliament. Labour's claim to be trustworthy handlers of the national finances took a severe mashing.

The world economy is now taking a pummelling but Mr Brown continues to assert that the British economy is well placed to cushion the blows. Week-by-week that assertion is being exposed for the bluster it is, an exposure made all the more believable because of the 10p tax fiasco. For Mr Cameron it is this fact that gives him his greatest weapon if he is to change tack and make the necessary massive inroads into government spending. There is plenty that could be done in this regard without touching politically sensitive areas such as the NHS, police, schools and defence, but that is not of itself sufficient reason to change tack now.

We know what will happen if he reneges from the current commitment to match Labour spending plans. The government will label it an attack on "beneficial" spending with any reduction in spending being measured in terms of lost policemen, nurses, soldiers, teachers and hospitals rather in the more realistic measure of lost quangos, spin doctors, management consultants and non-job bureaucrats. "Tory cuts" will be the watchword for the BBC for several weeks and there will be a specially extended Panorama programme in which the conclusion will be that there are some reductions possible in bureaucracy but more significant will be the reduction in patient care in the NHS.

It is necessary for Mr Cameron to wait until Mr Brown and Mr Darling can no longer explain how their future spending commitments can be funded. They will almost certainly never admit that that position has been reached but the figures on reduced tax revenues, increased benefit payments and rising inflation will speak for themselves. Those figures will allow Mr Cameron to say that the current spending plans cannot be afforded without massive increases in tax. He must be precise about the areas in which spending on bureaucracy will be reduced, concentrating on quangos, and he must give a cast-iron guarantee that a Conservative government will not employ a single spin doctor or political adviser at public expense.

Not only is it necessary for Mr Cameron to wait before he does this, it is also necessary for him to do it.

No comments: