Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Cameron's failure and Clegg's surge

The unpredictability of the current political climate makes analysis a foolhardy enterprise. Yet there is one thing that seems clear from the surge in support for Nick Clegg and the decline in support for David Cameron since last Thursday's debate: it is a sign of Cameron's failure to follow the logic of his initial attempts to modernise the Conservative Party. Support for the Tories has always seemed tentative over the last year, rarely topping 40% in opinion polls. It was a reluctant support that quickly crumbled when an alternative seemed available. Yet whatever policy criticisms may justifiably be levelled at Clegg and the Liberal Democrats could equally be laid at Cameron's door. He simply didn't do his homework.

There is a myth that the Labour government came to power in 1997 unprepared for what faced it. And it is true that the party had not yet developed its theories of public service reform to the extent that Blair wanted, and it took until the late second and third terms for that to be fully articulated. But a huge amount of groundwork had been done, and it has been very apparent to me over the last year that little such effort has been going on in terms either of policy or reshaping the Conservatives with the present Opposition, even if shadow ministers have been having lots of chats with civil servants. And that is Cameron's big failing.

Take education. We are told by uber-cheerleaders like the Spectator editor Fraser Nelson that there has been huge preparation in this policy area. And I have no doubt that Michael Gove is both the most personable and best informed education spokesman the party has had (save, perhaps, David Willetts) since 1997. Yet there are huge glaring gaps in policy. There is no money for pupil premiums - something the Lib Dems have at least costed at £2.5 billion - and there is a foolish pretence surrounding the free schools policy that it will be cost neutral, when the truth is that if it succeeds it will cost between £1-2 billion a year. There have been daft inconsistencies, such as a flirtation with worker co-ops and threats to scrap Key Stage 2 tests. And there is a conceit that the schools will largely be parent-led (which is backfiring badly on the doorsteps) when the reality is that they are more likely to be run by academy-style sponsors and chains. Compared with the huge detail and costing of Labour education policy pre-1997, this is very much policy lite.

And on other areas, the party is in a much worse state. Plans for US-style elected sheriffs have been attacked by the police, with justification. Health policy is thoroughly regressive for patients and lacks any reforming zeal. Economic policy has seemed dangerously half-baked, with the National Insurance wheeze only the latest example, and George Osborne has lacked the gravitas of a would-be Chancellor. But over-riding all this is something that the voters have noticed: despite a few high profile efforts to promote women and minority candidates, the Tory party itself seems relatively unchanged on the ground. There has been no Clause 4 moment: even on grammar schools, a shibboleth if ever there was one, a quick retreat took place. While Labour always had its internal battles, there were many new Labour members in the party in 1997 in constituencies like the one I chaired; the Cameroons seem like a small elite without any roots. The change was far too superficial, unlike the change effected by Blair from 1994-7. Voters see this locally.

So, the fact has always been that the Cameron project was far less solidly built than the Blair project, and far more likely to crumble in the face of a plausible alternative. Once Cameron had conceded equal billing to Clegg in the TV debates, he sealed his own fate. Of course, it is not good for Labour if its support falls below 30% or leaves it in third place, though a Lib-Lab government seems a real prospect, though there is still a chance that Lib Dem support will fall back as their policies are scrutinised more. But the Tories should never have allowed themselves to be in this situation. And for not taking his project forward properly, Cameron has only himself to blame.

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