Monday, April 19, 2010

Could Cameron become the new Kinnock?

Nick Clegg is almost as popular as Winston Churchill was in 1945, allegedly. Not much encouragement for the Lib-Dem leader, then.

After all, Churchill lost the General Election that year despite defeating Hitler.

We shouldn’t get too excited about the Lib-Dem surge. Mr Clegg has still got two TV debates to go and suddenly the underdog outsider will be the centre of attention. Can he really maintain his position under intense scrutiny now the novelty is wearing off?

The problem for David Cameron and Gordon Brown is that in the Commons they can ignore the Lib-Dems and encourage their MPs to laugh them off as an irrelevance.

They can’t do that now Mr Clegg has been given equal billing. And if they attack him too vehemently, uncommitted observers may well come to his defence.

The British sense of fair play, which even worked in favour of Nick Griffin when the BNP leader stumbled through “Question Time”, will work in Mr Clegg’s favour if the other leaders gang up on him.

It will, among other things, show that nothing can change. It will suggest we are stuck with a two-party system where the main parties put their own narrow interests ahead of the country’s.

As a result, Mr Clegg may win even if he loses. That’s despite the Lib-Dem’s many mad policies, most notoriously their devotion to the European Union and all its works.

Still, the person who should be most worried is David Cameron. What worked in his favour to get him elected as Tory party leader has backfired spectacularly.

The young, telegenic, charismatic leader has been up-staged by someone who is, in effect, a newcomer on the national stage. Mr Cameron suddenly looks tired and old-fashioned.

The real disaster for the Conservatives is that they are not already well in the lead. Tony Blair walked into the 1997 election a good 20 points ahead in the polls.

The best Mr Cameron can claim was a ten point lead. And for all his talk of “change”, nobody is convinced that anything very much would change under a Tory Government.

For all the dancing on pin-heads involved in the argument about the economy, there is fundamentally no difference between Labour and the Conservatives on the central issue of the election – the public sector deficit.

Whoever wins on May 6 will be forced to impose swingeing cuts. No department will escape – not even the NHS where Labour are already working through some pretty significant reductions.

There is no way Mr Cameron would reverse those, so even his pledge to protect the health service counts for nothing.

The real tragedy for the Tories is that they did not have a coherent economic policy before the recession started.
They pledged to “share the proceeds of growth”. This was, on the one hand, an attempt to appease Conservatives who instinctively want less public spending and smaller government and, on the other, a bid to attract wavering Labour voters scared by the Tories’ (undeserved, alas) reputation as the party of cuts and savings.

If – before the recession – the Cameroons had made a principled case for lower taxes, less State interference and less Government waste, what they said now on the economy would command some credibility.

Instead, they aped Gordon Brown so much they are now tarred with the same brush. His failure is theirs as well because they never offered an alternative – until it was too late.

This abandonment of traditional Conservative values was aimed at winning over voters in the middle ground who were disillusioned with Labour but didn’t trust the Tories.

That’s why the party has spent the past four years desperately sucking up to every special-interest group and minority it can find. Mr Cameron wanted to prove he had changed his party.

He certainly has managed to select a new range of candidates which conforms less to the upper-middle class, white, heterosexual male stereotype he and most of his Shadow Cabinet embody.

But it has forced the party to pussyfoot around without any clear messages. The fear of alienating any small group in Mr Cameron’s Blair-like “big tent” means the Conservatives are an anaemic, bloodless version of their former selves.

By trying to be all things to all people, Mr Cameron has made the party blurry and indistinct. The only change he offers is the change of not being Gordon Brown.

His big idea of the “Big Society” doesn’t resonate with most people. The idea that armies of old folk and school leavers will suddenly get out there and become volunteer social workers may sound quite nice. It may be laudable and right.

But it won’t swing an election where the voters are disillusioned with all politicians, dismayed at the state of the economy and desperate for something to change for the better.

I have an axe to grind. I was blackballed by Mr Cameron and his cronies because I wrote that Enoch Powell was right to warn that uncontrolled immigration would change the country dramatically.

I’m sorry, I have always been sorry, if anyone regarded that as racist. It’s not about racism. It’s about the capacity of this country to accommodate millions more people.

Next to the economy, this is the biggest issue facing Britain today. Notably, it was the first question in the first TV debate between the leaders.

Nobody was listening to what they said, though, because we were all too busy taking in the novelty of the situation. In reality, though, there is little to choose between the three parties.

The tragedy for the Conservatives is that a party which should be marching towards a straightforward election victory is sliding away in the polls.

If Mr Cameron can’t deliver an outright victory at a time when the present Government should be utterly discredited then he will go down in history as the Conservative Party’s answer to Neil Kinnock.

Kinnock, you will remember, spectacularly threw away the 1992 General Election when he had everything going for him.

Until now, I have been pretty sure Mr Cameron would get in with a majority of about 30. Not that I’ve been looking forward to such a victory but because it seemed to me this was an election no half-way competent Tory leader could possibly lose.

Now, I am not so sure. I do not believe the polls will stay as they are. Mr Clegg won’t be the shiny new golden boy by polling day. He and his policies will be exposed and largely discredited.

He won’t be telling his members to go back to their constituencies and prepare for Government but some of his popularity will stick.

The blame for this rests squarely on David Cameron. He failed to set out a radical and real alternative to the present Government when he had the chance.

He talks of hope but his leadership has been marked all along by fear – fear of alienating any possible voter other than the traditional old-fashioned Tory who, he believes, has nowhere else to go.

And, of course, it was Mr Cameron who had most to lose by agreeing to the TV debates in the first place.

Presumably he thought the charm and charisma which worked on the Conservatives five years ago would be equally effective on the nation as a whole.

It has even been claimed by his cheerleaders that Mr Cameron’s lacklustre performance was the result of Old Etonian politeness. It’s hard to believe.

Unless he can muster up a bit of passion and some raw conviction, instead of big-tent platitudes, he really does risk blowing the election.

Still, democracy is a wonderful thing and it may be that a hung parliament is actually what most people want.

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