When David Cameron was forced to disown Rebekah Brooks at the height of the phone-hacking scandal, he despatched an emissary to express his regret. “Sorry I couldn’t have been as loyal to you as you have been to me, but Ed Miliband had me on the run,” was the message relayed to the former News International chief executive. The Labour leader had forced Cameron to play catch-up by breaking one of the unwritten rules of British politics and declaring war on Rupert Murdoch.
But if the Prime Minister felt threatened by Miliband then, he doesn’t now. A “profound apology” was what Cameron promised if Andy Coulson, whom he appointed first as director of communications of the Conservative Party and then to the same role at No 10, was found guilty of phone-hacking. But there was nothing profound about the terse, matter-of-fact message that the Prime Minister recorded shortly after the legal verdict was announced. The banality of his response reflected the Tories’ belief that any damage from the affair had already been done. “We’ve cauterised the wound,” a Conservative MP told me.
It was also evidence of Miliband and Cameron’s changed fortunes. When the former had the Prime Minister “on the run”, his net approval rating stood at -21 to Cameron’s -25. It now stands at -43 to Cameron’s -13. More than the economic recovery, the incumbency factor and Labour’s spendthrift reputation, it is Miliband’s parlous personal ratings that give the Tories hope that they will emerge victorious in May 2015.
That an increasing number in Labour take the same view has reinforced their confidence. Jon Cruddas’s call in an interview with me for an end to political “top trumps”, and his declaration that “it’s not about Andy [Burnham], or Ed [Balls], or Yvette [Cooper]”, offer a glimpse into the conversations that some of the party’s MPs are having in private about the leadership. Although there is no outright disloyalty to Miliband, the subject of defeat and what it would mean for Labour arises with ever-greater frequency.
Yet Miliband heads a party that has led in the polls almost continuously for three years. When the Tories moved ahead after George Osborne’s deft Budget in March, many predicted that Labour’s lead had ended permanently. However, the party’s slight but stubborn advantage has returned.
Rather than rejoicing at Miliband’s subterranean personal ratings, the Tories should ask themselves why. The optimistic reading is that the Conservatives’ vote share is a “lagging indicator” that will shift as the fruits of the economic recovery are shared more widely and as voters properly consider whom they want to run the country. It is one echoed by some in Labour. Veterans of the Kinnock era recall that the party led the Tories for years in opposition but that John Major’s lead as “the best prime minister” proved decisive. Their Scottish colleagues note that the same was true in the case of Iain Gray and Alex Salmond in the 2011 Holyrood election. No party leader has ever won while trailing on both leadership and economic competence and few Tories believe that Miliband will be the first.
The pessimistic reading is that the Conservatives’ depressed ratings reflect the long-term structural weakness of the Tory brand. This is the party that won just 36 per cent of the vote against Gordon Brown’s government in 2010, that 57 per cent of the public “dislike” (compared to 43 per cent for Labour and 47 per cent for the Liberal Democrats) and that just 31 per cent think is “on the side of people like me”.
It was the belief that such uncomfortable truths had to be confronted, rather than ignored, that underpinned Cameron’s modernisation project. The Tories’ centrist shift enabled them to win their biggest swing since 1931 and to avoid a fourth successive general election defeat. But just at the moment when Cameron should have consolidated his advantage, he retreated. In the months following the 2010 election, the view hardened that the Tories had failed to win a majority because they were insufficiently “tough” on immigration, welfare and Europe, not because too few trusted them to manage public services and to govern in the interests of all voters. After this, the party’s rightwards trajectory in office became inevitable.
In his leaked attack on Cameron’s EU strategy, the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski (an old Bullingdon Club contemporary of Boris Johnson at Oxford) lamented that he had “ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him”. The same is true in almost every other area. The man who once declared that his priorities could be defined by the three letters “N-H-S” now avoids mentioning the subject in deference to the Conservatives’ election strategist Lynton Crosby. After trying and failing to erode Labour’s lead on the issue by pinning the blame for the Mid Staffs scandal on them, Crosby has concluded that even to acknowledge the existence of the health service only gives succour to the opposition.
William Hague is fond of joking that the Conservative Party has only two modes: panic and complacency. Having exhibited plenty signs of the former (as displayed by the intermittent briefing wars over Cameron’s putative successor), the Tories are now lapsing into the latter. The monomaniacal focus on Labour’s weaknesses, rather than their own, is evidence of a party that is in danger of forgetting why it did not win a majority in 2010. “We have made a series of mistakes collectively because we have always underestimated him [Miliband],” said Eric Pickles recently, in a rare moment of Conservative self-criticism. But even more than that, the Tories need to avoid overestimating themselves.