Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Everythings coming up Tory

Summer's here and the Tories are on the rebound, with a spring in their step following decent council election returns in May.

Of course, opposition is easy - not that I can explain why the Tories haven't been doing it for the past nine years, to be honest - as you are never required to deliver on your promises and can let your principles run free. That's why I've always thought that Labour supporters are naturally happier in opposition, as government requires awkward, pragmatic compromises which may not always match up with their ideals.

The 10% came from a MORI poll in the Sun on Monday - CON 41%, LAB 31% and and a second tranche of polls today reduces the gap significantly - CON 37%, LAB 34% and LD 18% - suggesting that the MORI version could be a little bit of a rogue result. Cameron certainly appears to have done something - but his success is founded upon novelty - he's offering a real alternative to Labour for the first time in almost a decade and those dissatisfied with Tony and Labour are happy to join Team Cameron, so the gains are in part happenstance on the part of the Tories.

Things aren't perfect - Tory Central Office has been spinning like mad to roll back on the importance of the A List, especially as the candidate selected for Bromley and Chislehurst wasn't an A Lister. However, two of the three on the shortlist were from the A List and it seems as though the winner has some local profile. I keep saying that the primary purpose of the A List isn't really to get the candidates on it into safe seats, but to demonstrate to voters that the Tory Party has changed and that these people are the public face - the vanguard of the New Tories. As part of that, the much maligned Tory candidate for Wetherfield East, Adam Rickitt, takes a break from smearing sun tan oil over his nether regions to outline his Tory beliefs in the Telegraph today. He describes himself as the 'Tory whipping boy' - something that must make old Harvey Procter wish he'd never packed the job in. I can't help but suspect that Mr Rickitt may have had another hand guiding his crayon as he wrote this paean to all things Cameroonie. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but the whole piece has a ghostly quality to it, entirely absent from his Question Time run-out.

He misses the point about why he has become the lightning rod for the attacks on the A List. I don't think we can deny that his youth is an issue, which will offend some of the more elderly candidates not on the list, but he claims that attracting young voters will be more difficult
if they see a member of their own generation immediately dismissed just for wanting to get involved.
I don't dismiss him just for wanting to get involved - that's commendable in anyone - but rather for his lack of experience, although he claims to have campaigned at the grassroots level (details, anyone?). What knowledge or experience could he bring to the job of an MP? He is only on the list because of his looks and his celebrity status, so to try and claim that he is the voice of youth in the party is frankly laughable.

Given that the Tories have had a good six months of reinvention, it is all the more shame, really, that their chosen candidate in Bromley ticks so many traditional Tory boxes: middle-aged, white, male, Freemason, professional... There was a golden chance there for Ravey Davey to stamp his imprint firmly on the Tory Party, but it is an indication that his writ within the party structure doesn't run as far as his media managers suggest.

There are a couple of other positive signs for the Tory party as well. Firstly, that bane of any political party, money. Recent figures from the Electoral Commission show that the Tories gained £9 million in donations in the first quarter of 2006 - three times that donated to Labour and a dozen times more than the amount given to the Liberal Democrats. It is worthwhile noting that £2.1 million of that came from a single donor in the form of a pre-election loan now converted to a donation, so the amount of new money is more limited and the Tories are hardly flush with cash, but the news should cheer them a little. Campaigning takes time and a professionally run organisation, which means it needs money, so the party with the largest war chest has a strong start to any campaign.

The second point is about the print media. The Tories have a number of cheerleaders in the broadsheets, but the most astute observer of the political wind is the Murdoch stable and the Sun in particular, which has been shifting to take a more pro-Cameron line - similar to the pro-Labour shift when Blair took over the Labour Party. Partly, of course, the media are bored with Blair - they know he's becoming a lame duck and are hungry for the new story, which seems to be coming out of Tory Central Office at the moment.

The Tories are using Labour's internal disarray as an opportunity to steal our policy clothing. We've had Gideon Osborne hinting that tax cuts might not be the first thing on the agenda for an incoming Tory administration, although those big business donors might be relieved to hear that he still wants to cut tax on their corporate earnings. This is another headline policy being dumped by the party. Just over a year ago, Gideon promised £4 billion worth of cuts to our tax bill financed by savings on government waste - a prospect he now finds 'unconvincing.' Now, in an echo of the pre-97 Gordon Brown promise to keep to Tory spending plans and thus not increase direct taxation, the Conservatives are sending out signals that they don't currently plan to slash public services. Similarly, Dishy Dave is coming out as a defender of public service and against those critics who hold the private sector up as shining examples of management. Not only does this reinforce the changing image of the Tory party to the electorate in general, it also appeals directly to the millions of public sector workers, who tend to vote Labour in the hope of securing their own jobs.

So, all in all, a good first six months for Cameron and the Conservatives, but the progress is still fragile. Much of this is driven by Cameron's image and that is still vulnerable to potential reverses - a poor run of by-elections or a bad showing in the 2007 local elections could make a difference. Cameron is still looking for that defining Clause IV moment - the point where he can show the voters that he is prepared to stand up to his own party. I'm not sure he'll find it - the Tories seem so desperate for power that they are prepared to go along with virtually anything as long as the forward motion is maintained. It might have come over Europe, but he's still pressing on with taking the Conservative MEPs out of the European Peoples' Party grouping in the European Parliament and forming a new alliance with some of the nuttier European parties - despite suggestions that he plans to renege on an agreement made during his leadership campaign. Whichever way he jumps on that decision, he looks likely to split the Tory group in Brussels.

As for Labour, things are decidedly less rosy. The stream of negative headlines seems impossible to stop - although the furore over Prescott has drawn fire from the Home Secretary and the PM. With any number of candidates being put forward to replace Prezza as the deputy leader of the party, you have to remind yourself that there is, as yet, no vacancy - although I suspect that might change. Prescott has become an object of ridicule and that's a difficult tag to shift. The real story behind all of this is the leadership itself and MPs are well aware that Blair has eighteen months in office at the outside, so the manoeuvring for position after the regime change comes has begun. Everyone assumes that Brown will get the job, but I'm not convinced. If you're a betting person, then put your money on Brown, but also a side bet on the least high-profile name on the ballot. There is a real danger that, for all his careful economic management, Gordon might not look fresh enough to provide a real challenge to Cameron. Brown has been careful to avoid most of the fall out from the problems affecting the government, but he might still be too closely associated with the Blair years. Alan Johnson or Hilary Benn might yet prove worthy opponents.

In the YouGov poll, the Tories are starting to develop decent figures on key issues - they are regarded as being better than Labour on taxation, immigration and crime and most remarkably on education. They run Labour a close second on the NHS and economic growth, but still trail significantly on other economic indicators like unemployment, inflation and interest rates. These indicators are reinforced by the ICM poll for the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. None of the polling results looks good for Blair - he's clearly become a liability for the party, with Cameron running only a single percentage point behind Blair on YouGov and Brown outshining Blair on all the positive indicators in the ICM poll. Tony is in deep trouble - and there's difficult waters still ahead with assorted items of legislation still to come.

The news isn't too bright for the Liberal Democrats either. They typically face problems with profile in the inter-election period, as they are really unable to lead on any policies and are limited to the tailend of most stories to provide a quick comment following on from the government and opposition. This has been heightened by the Tory revival, which offers the potential of a real choice for government, rather than just a protest vote - as nobody seriously believes that the Lib Dems are about to storm the gates of Downing Street - so the soft Tory vote that has gone Lib Dem for a number of years has returned to its natural home. While the polls seem undecided on the precise gap between the Tories and Labour, they agree that the LD vote share has declined since May. The distinctly lacklustre performance of the Minger also has a lot to do with it - whatever people may think of Chuckles, he was well liked by voters. Campbell could only attract 8% support as a potential PM in the YouGov poll, less than half of Kennedy's usual score. The only carrot still being dangled before them is the prospect of forming a coalition with the Tories in the event of a hung parliament - something that only 15% of Tory members can regard with any sense of pleasure. I can understand that feeling.

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