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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Cameron: not HD-ready

Another poll puts the Lib Dems in the lead. We've yet to find out whether this is a bubble that will burst before polling day. Just as Cameron held a more commanding lead when an election seemed a long way off, we might find that the Clegg bubble bursts closer to polling day. But the fact that it's lasted a week should have the Tories mighty scared.

I try in this blog to forecast some of the key things that will happen in the future. It now looks more likely than at any point in the last Parliament that a hung parliament will be the outcome on 7 May. Opinion polls indicating national swing are totally irrelevant in all polls but especially this poll. So, before May 6th, I will be publishing predictions in full for every seat in the country. This is the only way that anyone can come up with an accurate prediction.

If it is to be a Hung Parliament - the knives will be out for Cameron on May 7th. How did the Tory leader not secure an outright win against a hapless, much hated Prime Minister going for a fourth term, after the world's biggest economic crisis.

Here are some of the mistakes that I think Cameron has made and is continuing to make:

1. It's all about him Since the start, it has all been about Project Cameron, the Cameroons, Cameron's Conservatives. Cameron tried to make it about him, because he judged that the Conservative brand was too toxic. So he focused the change on presentation rather than substance. He changed Marathon to Snickers without explaining in detail what was changing inside. This fatally played into...

2. The Heir to Blair The Tories had been dealt three election defeats by Tony Blair. You can't blame them for copying Blair. Cameron, from the start, modelled himself on Blair. His personal and political admiration for Blair has been well documented. Perhaps one of the best things Labour could do is to bring out Tony Blair to remind voters that, first, Cameron isn't anywhere near as good as Blair was and, second, most voters are pretty sick of the Presidential style of Blair. But this overt attempt to copy Blair forever risked the Cameron project being about style over substance. Blair at least filled in some of the gaps. Too often, Cameron is caught talking vaguely about values, and "change" without specifying what "change" he would offer in practical terms.

3. The Big Society risks turning into a big flop. Already activists are saying that it's a hard sell on the doorstep. This will surely be judged as a huge strategic mistake. The 2005 Conservative strategy of focussing on 5 key policies (I can nearly remember them now: clean hospitals, controlled immigration, school discipline) may have failed on the substance, but at least you know what their priorities were. This election, when it really matters, the Conservatives have chosen to hide their probably very good policies under the cloud of a vague "Big Idea". Apart from anything, it's massively ambitious and it puts the focus on what the individual can do rather than what government can do. That might be a good approach after an election, but not when voters are looking specifically to elect a government on the basis of what they would do.

4. Where are the Shadow Cabinet? They may be somewhere, but they are nowhere near well known enough, credible enough or prominent enough at this stage in an election campaign. It is quite absurd for its prospective Chancellor - at the end of an economic crisis and with debt the key policy challenge of the next Parliament - to be virtually invisible. It makes the Tory campaign a sort of cardboard cutout. You have Dave, but beyond the man himself you struggle to identify what else there is. Voters need a wide base of evidence if you're going to seal the deal with them. A one-man band is not enough. At this stage in 1997, we knew Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett, Cook. We knew the whole package we were getting.

5. A Hung Parliament "would be bad" I may be wrong, but this line of attack to stem the Lib Dem surge seems a huge tactical mistake, and one that reflects all of the problems I've outlined. The point of an election campaign is to persuade people what you stand for, why the should vote for you. Claiming that "Five more years of Gordon Brown" or an "indecisive Hung Parliament" would be bad is not enough. It assumes that the electorate are willing to swap whenever the incumbent is looking dodgy. A fatal flaw neatly summed up by Marina Hyde on the campaign trail.

"Do you want another five years of Gordon Brown?" he asked. The crowd gave up a huge chorus of "No!" "Or do you want real change with the Conservatives?" he continued rhetorically. That only three or four obliged with a "Yes!" seems the most sledgehammer of metaphors for his current difficulties – yet it was so.

6. The future once? Not his fault, but Cameron has been in the job too long. Always a challenge to appear new when you've been attacking the Government for so long. But a greater focus on policy, rather than opposing, in the election campaign might have made people listen again.

A range of problems. But when, or if, there's a post mortem on why the Tories didn't get their majority - it will surely be that they just weren't HD ready. People wanted to change channel, but the picture was all a little bit fuzzy.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of overall majority by 10

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