24 April 2015

Can David Cameron turn it around?


David Cameron is, infamously, an essay crisis leader. He leaves it late and usually – usually – gets away with it, by remaining calm under pressure and  delivering a cracking speech or pitching it just right at the last moment.

Francis Elliott and James Hanning were the first to properly document this side of Cameron’s character in their invaluable, indispensable biography, published before DC became PM, when he made it to Number 10 by the skin of his teeth.

There is a pattern. Cameron crammed late and then aced his A-levels. Similarly, he got a first class degree with some more nifty cramming and quick thinking. In the late summer of 2005 he was losing the Tory leadership campaign, until his famous Blackpool speech to his party’s faithful. A previous speech in London and a BBC Newsnight focus group had caught the eye of the Westminster media. Then, at Blackpool he was introduced to the country and was transformed into the front-runner.

He botched the 2010 general election, and then, with a shameless pivot, landed himself in Downing Street by making a big, bold, comprehensive offer to the Lib Dems. The riots in the early years of the coalition might have done for him, in that 24 hour period in which it looked as though the chaos might spread in London and properly outside the capital. Cameron came back from holiday in Italy at just the right moment and took charge.

And now, in April 2015, here comes the ultimate essay crisis. With less than two weeks to go until the British general election (and with many voters already voting by post) the sense is that this election is just not breaking for the Tories. The polls fluctuate. One day the Tories are ahead by a few points then Labour are up one or two points. They’re deadlocked.

As the campaign has gone on, something else has happened. Miliband has grown and Cameron has appeared to shrink. The Labour leader looks as though he is enjoying the chance to prove his detractors wrong and confidence breeds confidence. He has stumbled today with a hypocritical intervention on the chaos in Libya, but I wonder how many voters will notice or care about that. Perhaps it looks like more politicians arguing about migrants and the messy aftermath of a war, shock, although when I heard it on the top of the BBC Radio news just there Miliband sounded less like a Prime Minister and much more like a know-nothing, smart-alec student leader on the make.

Cameron on the other hand just can’t seem to get moving in this campaign. “It is as though he has checked out already,” a good friend of mine texted me the other day. And you can see what she means.

This must be intensely frustrating for Cameron and his people to hear. He is working his socks off and is constantly on the road, with campaign stops from dawn until late in the evening. And still the polls don’t move decisively in his favour, or not yet. Worse, with Sturgeon-mania and hatred of the Westminster class not abating, the feeling grows that the country is moving on, leaving Cameron and Osborne behind. Not in any decisive or enthusiastic way towards Ed Miliband, but towards a chaotic break with the past and an eventual shake-up of how power is attained, held and exercised.

To answer the question at the top of this article, Cameron may still turn it around. In this craziest of elections it is still, just, possible. Only just.

In the end, ironically, considering how rude the Cameroons were about UKIP and the disaffected parts of the Tory base in their years in power, I suspect it will come down to about one million voters who say now they will vote for UKIP, along with some who are saying now they are non-voters.

Remember that the difference between UKIP closing the campaign on 10 points and seven points is around one million votes. If Cameron comes to life, if he can break free of the constraints and do something electrifying, one can imagine enough voters taking fright at the thought of Miliband and Sturgeon whacking up taxes and both preaching from the bible of political correctness for five years. If enough people respond, the Tories might finish on 37 points on the day and Labour could poll well behind that (with a Scottish wipeout exacerbating the situation for Miliband).

But it is, at this stage, a long shot that requires Cameron to put in the best ten days of his career. If the Tory leader is thinking of going up a gear, now might be a good time to get going.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX