Cameron's wobble

The Tories are ahead in the polls but remain unpopular. And there are divisions behind the scenes.

With Labour’s leadership crisis apparently resolved, finally, until after next year’s general election, the spotlight switches to the Conservatives. David Cameron has had much to smile about: his party enjoys a 39-27 lead over Labour in the latest ICM poll, and he suffers none of the abuse levelled daily at Gordon Brown. Beneath the surface, however, Tory unity and public support for the party are thinly spread.

On 10 June, Andrew Lansley, shadow health secretary, declared on the Today programme that a Tory government would slash spending by 10 per cent across the board (except for health and overseas aid) from 2011. Though Labour strategists seized on the remarks, using them to reiterate Brown’s preferred “investment v cuts” dividing lines, Lansley quickly backtracked and calm appeared to descend again on the Tories.

However, behind the scenes there was absolute panic. “It was a meltdown – not a Brown-style meltdown but a real meltdown nonetheless,” one insider said. “[Conservative] HQ went into panic stations. Lansley was phoned and told: ‘One more strike and you’re out.’”

According to shadow cabinet sources, there was a major “wobble” on the front bench as to where the party is heading on the issue of public services and spending cuts. Some shadow ministers, such as Liam Fox at Defence, were angered by the prospect of having their budgets cut should they win the next general election. But there was also palpable fear among some of the more thoughtful party strategists that they were playing into Labour’s hands; some with longer memories are aware that even Margaret Thatcher never explicitly talked about “cuts” in this way in advance of an election.

Adding to the sense of division is a letter being circulated among “up to a hundred” dissatisfied MPs following the expenses scandal. The letter, printed on Commons notepaper, complains that “the party in parliament has ceased to be a team effort and is now just run and dictated to for the personal advantage of David Cameron and George Osborne. We are concerned that the parliamentary party is just being used and abused by the leader and his inner circle.”

A further “wobble” came with the characteristically honest admission by Kenneth Clarke, the shadow business secretary, that the populist Tory pledge for a retrospective referendum on the EU would be meaningless if the Irish vote Yes in their plebiscite on the Lisbon Treaty which will take place by November this year. In that scenario, he said: “Our settled policy is quite clear – that the treaty will not be reopened.”

Clarke is proving to be a worryingly outspoken colleague for Cameron. Only a week before his return to the front bench in January, the former chancellor said that any party calling for tax cuts going into the next general election would be “asking for trouble”. Then, in March, he said the pro-rich pledge to abolish inheritance tax for estates worth up to £1m was not a high priority. “We will have to consider when we can afford to do that,” he said, before being yanked back into line by Conservative high command.

Now, once again, Cameron was said to be “furious” at Clarke’s remarks. Tory officials briefed that they represented a “gaffe”. But the Conservative leader knows he cannot go too far in alienating his popular frontbencher: in the unlikely event that Clarke were to resign, he would cause untold damage to Cameron’s campaign to become prime minister. Indeed, it is said that Clarke has told friends he would be forced to step down if the party remains committed to a referendum after a Yes vote in Ireland.

Although the pro-European wing of the party is in the minority, it is also, in private, increasingly angry at Cameron’s policies on the EU. Chief among complaints is his pledge to leave the mainstream, centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP. This, after all, puts his “progressive” Tories in alliance with extreme-right parties such as Poland’s Law and Justice, one of whose MPs, Artur Górski, once described Barack Obama’s election as “a disaster” and “the end of the civilisation of the white man”.

It is not as if Cameron wasn’t warned. In 2006, the pro-European Conservative Group for Europe circulated a series of internal memos about “the potential reputational damage” that would hit the party over such an alliance. “The key problem for David Cameron,” said one of the documents seen by the New Statesman, “is that [Law and Justice] is a deeply unattractive ally – and a quite unnatural bedfellow for the sort of ‘progressive Conservatism’ that the Tory leader seeks to present.”

The fear, pro-European Tory sources say, is that in the end the party will have to abandon its plan to leave the EPP. “There is a real prospect that, after this attempt to appease the Eurosceptics, we will actually end up going back to the EPP on bended knee,” an insider says. “Only this time, the terms and conditions of our re-entry will be much tougher.”

The British Conservative Party is rapidly losing friends and alienating people on the Continent. Back home, meanwhile, there is the issue of the Tories’ precarious electoral position. Privately, strategists concede that Cameron has good reason to echo Tony Blair’s warning against “complacency”. This is not just because they are aware that their 28.6 per cent share of the vote at the local and European elections amounted only to a one-point gain on the 2004 result, which was followed by defeat at a general election the following year. Nor is it simply because it is below William Hague’s 35.77 per cent, which also preceded a (landslide) defeat at the 2001 election. Instead, it is that the Conservatives are polling 10 points less on average than New Labour did under Tony Blair in the run-up to the 1997 election.

In 1996, Ipsos MORI showed that Labour consistently polled above 50 per cent – often in the high fifties – while the Tories languished in the early twenties. Today, David Cameron may be popular, but his party remains relatively unpopular in the country at large. Prior to the 1997 landslide, New Labour’s popularity outstripped even Blair’s – the party polled 54 per cent, its leader 48 per cent. Over the past 12 months, however, the Conservative Party has polled roughly 7 per cent below its leader – 40 per cent compared to Cameron’s own 47 per cent average approval rating. Cameron has failed to “decontaminate” the Tory “brand”.

Meanwhile, there is excitement at No 10 about a potential Labour revival, however remote. Party strategists are pinning all their electoral hopes on an economic upturn. It is worth noting that the respected National Institute of Economic and Social Research in effect declared the recession over this past week.

If, as we wrote last week, the Brown government can concentrate the country’s attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year’s general election.

“We have private polling showing the Tory lead is wide but thin, and the gap is narrower than in the papers,” says a Downing Street aide. “But part of the problem is the marginals; [Lord] Ashcroft has been channelling funds into them and they are not specifically recorded by the companies. The Tory lead there will be strong.”

Suddenly, it appears that a kind of normality has returned to British politics. The Tories are firmly in the lead (for now) but divisions over public service investment and Europe continue to simmer. Cameron is troubled by a gaffe-prone shadow health secretary and a loose-tongued (but unsackable) business secretary. The Tories’ poll ratings are soft and the economy is improving even though unemployment, a lagging indicator, continues to rise.

In the mid-1990s, the late Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair’s mission in leading New Labour to victory to that of an elderly and frail butler carrying a priceless vase from one side of a room to another. Today, Labour is down but not out. And it should be repeated: the Tories have yet to seal the deal with the British electorate. David Cameron must hope that his fragile party doesn’t slip and stumble before election day.

Additional research by James Cave