“We cannot afford to underestimate David Cameron,” a former Labour minister told me earlier this year. “He is a brilliant operator.” That ex-minister’s throwaway remark encapsulated the collective attitude of the political and media class towards the Tory leader: one of admiration and awe, respect and even reverence. The “Very Serious People”, to borrow a phrase popularised by the economist Paul Krugman, long ago tagged Cameron as a natural leader, born to rule, a “winner”.
The reality is the exact opposite: the Prime Minister and his partner-in-crime George Osborne have been overestimated for far too long. It cannot be said often enough: Cameron and Osborne failed to win a majority against the most unpopular prime minister in living memory, following the worst recession since the war. Yet, even now, the Chancellor’s critics fault his grasp of macroeconomics while lauding him as a “master strategist”. Sorry, isn’t the goal of a master strategist to win an election? I’ve always been baffled about how Osborne’s reputation survived the general election result.
Yet things are changing. In the wake of the “Omnishambles Budget”, the row over Jeremy Hunt and the confirmation of a double-dip recession, all the talk is of incompetence and error. Osborne’s stock has fallen; Cameron was dragged to the Commons to defend himself over his links to the Murdoch empire. As my colleague Rafael Behr points out on page 17, this has afforded Ed Miliband a second audition in front of a sceptical electorate.
Nonetheless, the Tories’ media cheerleaders keep shifting the goalposts, desperate to resurrect the discredited narrative of Conservative dominance/Labour failure. First, they argued that Labour should be far further ahead of the Tories in the polls. This overlooks that the coalition lost its lead back in September 2010, less than five months into the parliamentary term. By contrast, the last Labour government first lost its lead after the fuel protests in September 2000 – more than three years into its first term.
The Miliband-led Labour Party now enjoys double-digit leads over Cameron’s Conservatives. A YouGov poll published in the Sunday Times on 29 April gave the party an 11-point lead – which would translate into a 110-seat majority. The Tories are on just 29 per cent – their lowest YouGov poll rating since 2004.
So the Cameroons have changed the terms of the debate. It isn’t voting intention that matters, they claim, it is the public’s perception of economic competence. Here, they gleefully point out, Labour has consistently trailed the Conservatives, with Cameron and Osborne trusted much more than the two Eds. But, in recent months, with unemployment rising and growth going negative, Labour has been narrowing the Tories’ lead on the economy. A Mail on Sunday/Survation poll at the end of March put Ed Balls ahead of Osborne for the first time.
The Very Serious People pretend not to notice. They move the goalposts again, from Ed B to Ed M. Look at the leaders’ personal ratings, they shriek. Cameron is popular, Miliband isn’t. Not quite. The Sunday Times/YouGov poll had the Tory leader ahead of his rival by 8 points – but this was down by a whopping 16 points compared to the previous week. The PM’s approval ratings appear to be in free fall. In an under-reported Ipsos MORI poll published last month, Miliband’s net satisfaction ratings overtook Cameron’s for the first time: -18 against the Prime Minister’s -20. (Yes, I know, both are bad but politics, like life, is relative.)
“The Prime Minister is no longer a clear asset to his party,” wrote YouGov’s president, Peter Kellner, on 30 April, but added that Cameron could console himself with “two crumbs of comfort”, the first being a potential “period of economic calm and governmental competence”, which might divert the attention of a disgruntled public and the second being that “voters’ fury with the Tories has not so far converted into a passion for Labour”.
Crumbs indeed. The economy is going to get worse, not better. Those of us who warned of the dangers of a double-dip recession when the coalition government unveiled its slash-and-burn cuts agenda in 2010 stand vindicated. Austerity doesn’t work. But Osborne’s refusal to change course, to consider a new plan (whether it is A+, B, C, X, Y or Z), looks likely to doom the UK to a Japan-style “lost decade” of anaemic growth and mass unemployment.
As for the lack of “passion for Labour”, how much does this matter? As this column noted a few weeks ago, despite the self-serving boundary review, come 2015 the Conservatives need a lead over Labour of about 7.5 points merely to secure a one-seat majority in the Commons. And, on an equal share of the vote, Labour would still win more seats.
Cameron should be taking drastic steps to turn things around. Forget decontaminating the Tories, the Prime Minister now needs to decontaminate himself – but he is the master of misjudgement. Remember how he clung on to Andy Coulson, his director of communications between 2007 and 2010, despite the litany of allegations and accusations against him?
Today, the PM clings to Jeremy Hunt, his “firewall”, pretending that a short temper is a substitute for a persuasive argument. Yet another humiliating U-turn may be on its way. Downing Street has already gone from ruling out an inquiry into Hunt until after the Leveson inquiry reports to ruling out an inquiry until after Hunt testifies this month.
Regardless of the outcome of the London mayoral election on 3 May, Cameron’s reputation will not recover. “We’ve been too afraid of the Tories. We assumed Cameron was a Machiavellian figure and a brilliant communicator,” says a shadow cabinet minister. “Turns out he’s neither.” The veil has been lifted; the Don’t Overestimate Cameron Association (DOCA) has had plenty of recruits in recent weeks.
During his stint as leader of the opposition, Cameron was once asked why he wanted to be prime minister. “Because I think I would be quite good at it,” he is said to have replied with a familiar mix of arrogance and overconfidence. But the inconvenient truth – for his media apologists, his cabinet colleagues and, naturally, for Cameron himself – is that he isn’t.