So, to the excellent question I was asked at a software conference yesterday – is David Cameron doing anything right, does Nick Clegg have a future, and is Ed Miliband electable as Prime Minister?
I ended up answering yes, yes and yes, but with varying degrees of caveat and qualification.
For Cameron, the problem I have been banging on about again and again on here – lack of clear strategy, lack of certainty in himself about what kind of Tory he is and what he wants to do with power – is the one that now leads to magazines like The Spectator leading their Tory conference coverage with a front page cartoon and the headline ‘Cameron in freefall.’
He had the best wicket for an Opposition leader since TB in 1997, but failed to win a majority – because he lacked clear strategy, because ‘decontaminating the Tory brand’ became his purpose, not a policy platform for the country. Now in government, the brand is being re-contaminated, his clarion calls in opposition on the environment, the big society (time to move to lower case on that one) and all else designed to signal a shift to the centre, stand exposed as tactics masquerading as strategy.
As ever in front of a business audience I tried to be non tribal, and I found a lot of people nodding as I reeled off examples of tactics leading strategy. I made the point that he continues to take a direct hand in day to day media management, and so pops up on the television night after night with the same urgent ‘top priority’ tone on an ever changing myriad of top priorities. So one night it is jobs, then housing, then tax dodgers, then a foreign policy issue and then, as last night, the police hunt for young April Jones.
His economic plan is failing. His health reforms have been so badly handled he had to demote the man who devised them. His education secretary is turning teachers and parents against the government in their hundreds of thousands. I found myself saying I supported what he did on Libya, said he continued to look and sound the part (but that is eroding along with public respect) but that was about it.
As for Clegg, I unintentionally got one of the biggest laughs of the morning by saying he definitely has a future, ‘the question is whether there is any joy or success in it.’ Thinking aloud, I ended up saying there was a fifty fifty chance he would fight the next election as leader, that rivals were moving, that the public were writing him off, that his big mistake had been to allow himself in the early heady days of coalition to become Cameron’s human shield, but that I admired his resilience and reckoned he might be tougher than his internal opponents.
The R word – resilience – was one I applied to Ed Miliband too, along with the C word – no not that one – but Calm. He had been written off almost from the start, but has kept going, and his bravura performance in delivering the One Nation Labour speech on Tuesday has the potential to be a breakthrough moment. All depends now on how he and his colleagues – who must become more visible and impactful in the public debate – inject momentum into the change of mood among party, commentariat and, if anecdotal experience is anything to go by, sections of the public.
Once the sense of his own improvement is matched by thought through policy positions which become known to the public, then the race between him and Cameron will become much more interesting. All the things people say now – ‘wrong brother’, geek, sounds odd, looks odd – will become less and less relevant once policy fills the space of public debate.
Nor should morale and confidence be underestimated as political weapons. Ed is rightly more confident now, but also knows that there is really no such thing in politics as the overnight turning of a mood. He knows too that the thought in the gentleman’s question, as with the thoughts on Cameron and Clegg, is out there. Politics is a slow, strategic business, but One Nation Labour was a big strategic step. The next steps will decide if it really is the breakthrough moment. One thing is for sure, the Tories will be adapting their anti Miliband attacks to take account of a changing perception.
Don’t forget either than when TB first came along, he was derided as Bambi, and right up to 1979, one of the lines run against Mrs Thatcher was that she would not be able to stand up to the men then leading Europe.