Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Cameron in trouble

Shall we have a quick round up of the problems that David Cameron is facing at the moment? I think we should. I shan't go back so far as to drag up the gaffes pre-dating the last few weeks, although much pleasure was to be had from the whole Greg Dyke debacle, the Grammar School U-turns, the museum charges stuff and Quentin Davies defection to Labour (Oh, OK, I'll quote Labour's second newest MP: He told Cameron that "Although you have many positive qualities you have three, superficiality, unreliability and an apparent lack of any clear convictions, which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership"). Having had a pretty dreadful June, July shows no signs of letting up for the Tory leader, to my great amusement. Here's a quick overview:

1. I suppose that some people might consider it a good thing that the Tories have, in Boris Johnson, finally found a high profile and popular figure to run against Red Ken, but I'm pretty sure it'll turn out to be a calamitous mistake; Johnson may have carefully cultivated a joshing, likeable reputation, but he's a shambolic, desperate politician and a bad choice. He's certainly got no qualifications for running London, and the chances of him getting to the election without some appalling gaffe look pretty slim. Ken will bury him.

2. Cameron's strategy, hankering after a clause 4 moment, is clearly to ensure that no policy commitment he makes (or rather, alludes vaguely to) wins the jaundiced approval of the nutter section of the Tory Press, represented ably by Simon Heffer, Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens. The latter, Cameron says, is a maniac and Heffer's politics were roundly refuted by Cameron in a recent Telegraph article. "Simon Heffer's approach", Cameron wrote, "heartfelt though it undoubtedly is, will simply ensure that our party remains in Opposition for ever". All of this is doubtless sensible, seeing as the lunatic politics of that triumverate have done much to destroy Tory hopes of government over the last twenty years. But the fact remains that this policy, sensible or not, means that the right wing press slag off Cameron constantly. The section of the electorate who are his core base spend every morning, every day of the week, reading about what a charlatan he is. It looks like the mud is beginning to stick.

3. It's not just the grassroots who are getting impatient either. It's one thing for dinosaurs like Norman Tebbitt to attack him, but criticism is coming thick and fast from figures who matter, either to the party itself or to its members. In the first category, there are few more important than Lord Kalms, who is a major Tory doner and a former treasurer to the party. On the Today programme this morning he was relatively careful not to damn his leader out-right. "I'm just sending warning signals from the back ranks:'Look, chum, we need to do some rethinking'", was how he phrased it. Yet he was less cautious in the FT, indicating that he was "disillusioned to a substantial degree" with David Cameron.

4. Ann Widdecombe may be a figure of the past too, but she's popular with the party and her criticism is becoming more strident. Today she insisted that Cameron spend less time gadding about Rwanda and more time shoring up the traditional vote. Crime and immigration, according to Ms Widdecombe, should be back at the top of the Tory agenda. Most of the grassroots will probably cheer her intervention. Cameron won't.

5. His trip to Rwanda appears to be playing very badly. I'd argue that this is decent work and worth his while, but the problem lies in perception. The floods here in the UK are really bad, and while there's not much he can actually do to help, it's his constituency that's under water. People are asking why he isn't there. Equally, as worthwhile as a trip to Africa might be, it follows several sensationalist PR exercises (remember the huskies, the wind turbine, the bicycle?). When will Cameron stop posturing, his party are wondering, and start delivering? Will he ever? A Tory frontbencher apparently asked "What is the point of him going to Africa? Does he think he’s Bob Geldof? This is just a stunt".

6. This one's serious - The Sunday Telegraph reported at the weekend that dissent on the backbenches continues to ferment. Apparently as many as six MPs had sent letters to the chairman of the party's 1922 backbench committee demanding a vote of no confidence. Six MPs is nothing in a party the Tories' size, but it is absolutely vital, if the Cameron project is to succeed, to create the illusion that the party is with him not against him. He's moving too fast, clearly, and leaving people behind. Those people are going to start creating quite a lot of noise, by the looks of things.

7. And then of course there's the biggest problem. By any standards the results in last week's two by-elections were an absolute disaster. The tories may have increased their share of the vote in both Ealing Southall (where they fought, humiliatingly, as Cameron's Conservatives) and Sedgefield, but a party that trails in in third in two key by-elections at this point of the electoral cycle is in serious, serious trouble. The background to all the points above, and doubtless the cause of much of the dissatisfaction, is surprise at how Brown is doing. There's not a lot the Tories can do about that, except shut up and let him have his moment in the sun (which, like all honeymoons, will end before long) - but even so, they should have come second in Sedgefield and some might say they should have won in Southall. It's a massive problem that they didn't.

Brown should go to the polls.

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