Why is the calmly confident David Cameron showing signs of flakiness, with cock-ups over tax policy, sudden shifts on spending cuts and a broader uncertainty of tone? There are many answers to the question, but the most straightforward gets closest to the truth.
Would-be Labour leaders, take note: being leader of the opposition is the most difficult job in British politics, in many ways more demanding than being prime minister. By definition, a prime minister leads a party that has won an election, a helpful starting point. An opposition leader must gather his demoralised troops after defeat, and faces a long haul.
Cameron’s task was similar to the one Neil Kinnock faced after Labour’s defeat in 1983, and which the next Labour leader might face, too. He needed to seek broad appeal without alienating core support. As the author of the party’s vote-losing manifesto in 2005, he had to question his own views on certain issues. There is limited evidence that he changed them, but such self-interrogation is itself a challenge.
Cameron also needed to find ways of keeping the media more or less on board (made more complicated by senior columnists yearning for a magical mystery tour back to the 1980s, but with an even louder drum roll: bigger cuts, deeper Euroscepticism, more determined battles with those progressive forces wrecking Britain).
In between, there are the demands of speech-making, interviews and performances at the despatch box. Then policies are required that make sense of it all, embodying both change and continuity.
When he became leader of the opposition, Cameron had been in the shadow cabinet only a few months. He had seen power at close quarters, helping John Major prepare for Prime Minister’s Questions, advising Norman Lamont and Michael Howard when they were senior ministers. That is good, but narrow, experience for a leader of the opposition. There were no great battles fought over policy, no taste of public performance in which strategy, tactics, policy and values had to come together.
Cameron and George Osborne looked to Tony Blair as a model, and even now their aides turn to him for navigation. When one sympathetic columnist said to a senior Cameron aide that he thought the leader had made a mistake at Prime Minister’s Questions by using all six questions to challenge Gordon Brown’s personality, the aide replied, without hesitation or qualification: “It’s fine. Blair did the same with John Major in 1996. We checked before David did the same.” Cameron’s recent speech to the Conservative party conference in Scotland was modelled on one given by Blair during the build-up to the 1997 election. It evoked moderate, reassuring competence in contrast to the government’s alleged reckless wastefulness, and at the same time proclaimed a vaguely defined radical intent.
Blair is an inappropriate model for Cameron. When he became leader of the opposition, Neil Kinnock and John Smith had already done a lot of the heavy lifting. He himself had covered a lot of thorny ground – taking on the unions over the closed shop as shadow employment secretary, for example, and changing policy on crime as home affairs spokesman. None of this was any preparation for government – Cameron has been closer to power than Blair had been – but, in opposition, Blair learned how to cast a spell.
Cameron, though formidable in many respects, is still learning, and the job is a mountainous one. He realised from the beginning that he faced a daunting electoral climb, starting out with fewer MPs than Labour won under Michael Foot’s leadership in 1983. But such was Cameron’s confidence, that he showed few signs of being overwhelmed by the awesome challenges of the job.
Labour can take only limited comfort from recent headlines suggesting that the Tories are struggling. In reality, the polls indicate the Conservatives will win, even if they will not win big. The figures have barely moved – a mere 1 per cent here and there. There is still a strong possibility that Labour will be in opposition soon, and will be selecting a leader to make an ascent more daunting than the one that Cameron faced. A Labour leader has the added burden of winning over not just a more assertive party, but a largely Tory-supporting or centre-right media.
Tried and untested
Labour’s leadership crisis is that it lacks a ready-made leader. Even after its landslide defeat in 1983, the party had an array of candidates who seemed qualified to do the job, from Roy Hattersley and Denis Healey to Peter Shore and the eventual victor, Kinnock. They might not have flourished, but they would not have sunk. They had done the rounds as public figures.
Even the youthful Kinnock, with no experience of government, had fought internal battles and was a public personality. He had taken part in more chat shows than Brown, including Parkinson (a grown-up chat show). Kinnock was better known than the likely candidates in a leadership contest now, though three of them are in the cabinet, and one is Foreign Secretary.
My guess is that, if there is a leadership race after the election, the candidates will be David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Jon Cruddas. The first three have had a great deal of experience and yet seem surprisingly untested. They have been more or less at the heart of things since the early to mid-1990s. David Miliband worked with Blair and then soared up the ministerial hierarchy so fast that the ideas he enthusiastically espoused rarely became policy. The two Eds were with Brown through all the traumatic twists and turns, closer at times to the decision-making than David was in No 10. All three were special advisers, and only relatively recently have they emerged into the spotlight. Cruddas has never been a minister, which gives him the freedom to range more widely in terms of ideas, but makes it harder still to judge how he would respond to the hardest job in British politics.
Leaps of the imagination are required in each case. The relevant questions are similar to those posed of Cameron and his competitors for the Tory leadership in 2005. Who has the best ideas for moving on from the Blair/Brown era in ways that command broad appeal and yet are rooted in conviction and principle? Who will be most effective at engaging with voters in the media and on public platforms? Who will be best at managing a team, one that has been bewildered by defeat? Who will get the most positive coverage in the newspapers? Who is best equipped to deal with ferocious personal attacks proclaiming the new leader’s utter uselessness and questioning his sanity?
I could go on posing questions for days. If Labour is not to make the same mistake as the Conservatives did after 1997, it will need to spend time answering as many of them as possible before electing its leader.
This is where the more senior figures will need to play their part. I am told that Peter Mandelson sees his role in such circumstances as being the “glue” that keeps his party stuck together. After defeat against a similarly right-wing Conservative Party in 1979, there was no glue, and Labour fell apart. Mandelson will play an influential part in the timing and outcome of a contest, relishing the prospect of being a youthful elder statesman.
And what of Brown? There is speculation that he would be defiant and seek to stay on in the face of defeat. Maybe he would do so in a hung
parliament, if Labour still had cards to play. But as one cabinet minister who knows him well told me, “If Cameron wins decisively, Gordon would hate it. He would hate Prime Minister’s Questions in particular. I don’t think he would stay.” Almost certainly, he would not be allowed to do so. Another cabinet minister, noting the numerous attempted coups of recent years, says a clear Tory majority would be the final straw. “We would definitely get rid of him then. We would have to.”
Whatever Brown might decide to do, or is forced to do, there is still a case for candidates to be assessed for the job over a long period of time, as Cameron was. I am told emphatically – have been told many times – that the party’s deputy leader, Harriet Harman, does not want to stand and will not do so. But she wants to stay in the front line and would be content to act as leader while the party chooses a long-term successor. If Brown goes quickly, she may have an important role to play in ensuring that a leadership contest lasts long enough for the candidates to be tested properly.
The fragility of Cameron’s project makes it possible still for Labour to do better than expected at the election. It is also a warning that, in opposition, even highly talented politicians struggle to reach the heights.
Steve Richards is chief political commentator for the Independent and a contributing editor of the New Statesman