How can I be off message?” John Major once complained when his advisers said he had deviated from the party line. “I am the message!” The same thought must race through David Cameron’s mind whenever his party erupts in discontent with his performance. The Conservatives’ campaign in the next general election has two elements: reassurance that the economy is on the right track and fear of a derailment if Ed Miliband were put in charge. The message is safety in continuity, framed as a test of which party leader looks more plausible as prime minister. The message is Cameron.
Opposition strategists concede that the Conservatives’ strongest asset is their leader. In opinion polls, he trounces Miliband in measures of personal authority and trust to run the economy, although his party is behind Labour. The opposition also enjoyed a lead in 1992, right up until polling day, when Major crushed Neil Kinnock. This is the precedent – a late surge against an unconvincing opponent – that gives Cameron hope of hanging on in Downing Street.
A large obstacle to fulfilment of that dream is indiscipline in the Conservative ranks, fuelled by panic over Ukip. A reason why many Tories thirsted for sacrificial blood in the battle over Maria Miller’s expenses is the knowledge that Downing Street’s bungled defence of the culture secretary made it too easy for Nigel Farage to decry a corrupt establishment stitch-up.
No 10 invited Miller’s assassins in the press and parliament to desist but failed to erect a bulletproof shield around her. Her resignation exposed Cameron as a slow reader of the mood in his party and the country. That detachment is just one of the reasons why comparisons with 1992 are redundant. Central to the Tory message in that election was the ordinariness of Major’s background. He was the working-class boy from Brixton whose attainment of high office could never be belittled as the ornament of a gilded class. Cameron’s irremediable poshness isn’t just a problem when trying to woo Labour voters. It alienates ex-Tories who are switching to Ukip. The Prime Minister radiates the Westminster elitism of which Farage offers himself as the scourge.
The plan devised by Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign strategist, for closing down the Ukip threat involves reminding people that voting for it risks admitting Miliband to No 10 by accident. Tory MPs who have been testing that line in their constituencies report mixed results at best. “We don’t care. We just want to hurt you,” is how one backbencher summarises the response on the doorstep. Even Conservative optimists say they do not expect to make any progress against Ukip until after May’s European Parliament elections. Many have written off that poll and have resorted to pleading with constituents to “split the ticket” – backing the Tories in local elections on the same day. Get this Ukip thing off your chest in the MEP ballot, is the whisper: just please reconsider Cameron in time for a general election.
One way the Prime Minister hopes to compensate for the limitations of his personal appeal is by assembling a cabinet that looks less exclusive than he does. In parliament, Labour MPs tease the government front bench as a parade of male millionaires. Downing Street dismisses the tactic as petty but the barb stings. A wide-ranging government reshuffle is likely in June and Cameron – counselled by George Osborne – is expected to use the opportunity to “refresh” his team. That usually means elevating MPs who confound the Tory ministerial stereotype of a chap in pinstripes. Young women with regional accents and comprehensive schooling are preferred.
Undermining the presentational advantages of such a reshuffle are the grievances it generates among those passed over. The joke among Tory MPs is that the only way to get promoted in Cameron’s regime is to be an Old Etonian, female or Matt Hancock (the skills minister is a favourite of the Chancellor). It is widely suspected that Cameron’s reluctance to surrender Miller owed much to her precious status as one of the few women in the cabinet.
Over the past year, the Prime Minister has tried to repair relations with his parliamentary party. He has made special overtures to right-wingers, hoping that they might be prevailed upon to issue the warning not to dabble with Ukip for fear of abetting Miliband. That, it is hoped, will sound more persuasive coming from MPs who share many views with Farage.
Such a strategy doesn’t address the despondency of moderate Tories whose problem with Cameron is not ideological. They are annoyed about what one former minister calls “pay and rations” – the feeling among middle-aged male MPs that more lucrative careers were available outside parliament and that their talents are ignored in a regime of positive discrimination that favours candidates with cosmetic appeal. They hate the way troublemakers are rewarded with policy concessions, while obedient supporters are neglected.
These rumblings are not the stuff of rebellion. They contain no eagerness for a change of leadership before the election. Yet, while most Tory MPs accept that Cameron is their best bet for 2015, their conversation still turns to questions about the succession: what will Boris Johnson do? Would Osborne climb free from the wreckage of an election defeat? Is anyone from the 2010 parliamentary intake ready for the top job? Partly that is because the electoral arithmetic makes victory so uncertain but it also describes a deeper malaise. Even many loyal Tories struggle to embrace David Cameron as the message because he keeps sending the message that he doesn’t want to embrace them.