Most of us interested in politics are relaxing into that end-of-term feeling. Parliament is ready to pack up and we are preparing for our holidays. Not so for David Cameron and his team: a big decision still awaits them, and it will hang over every moment of their summer break. They have a key choice to make about the all-important conference in October, the last before the general election. This is the crucial moment where they will define the tone for the campaign that will see them into office.
Being cautious, they are not taking victory for granted. From my pollster’s point of view, it’s hard to see how they can fail to be the winners. But from the point of view of a future Prime Minister, winning cannot be enough. Cameron needs a margin sufficient to support him through the turbulent times ahead. He needs a lead big enough to prevent him from constantly worrying about his second term. And though the electorate has now given up on Gordon Brown and feel ready for Cameron, they have not sealed the deal. There is no sense that a firm mandate is about to be transferred. And that sense of national mandate is what the Conservatives require in order to govern well.
They will get it only if, at the October conference, they convince the electorate that they have a vision, a plan, and a will to make this country better. To get a true mandate, they must convince us that they are seeing five years ahead, that they have a sense of purpose in their bellies, a drive to transform, not merely a desire to win.
To concentrate their minds this summer, I suggest they take a good look across from Westminster to City Hall, and assess the performance of the London Mayor after his first year. On the positive side, Boris has been a definite improvement on Ken Livingstone. He has wasted a little less. Gone are the hundreds of posters proclaiming Ken’s petty progress, paid for by London taxpayers, and we are grateful for that. Boris has made no significant mistakes. He has not added to the burden of Londoners, as Ken would undoubtedly have done. He’s been a good communicator, as we expected him to be, and he’s also provided some welcome amusement. All in all, no question, he’s been a jolly decent mayor.
But that’s it. There’s no notable achievement, no sense that anything important will change, no grip. Real problems are not solved – in fact, there’s not even a discernable attempt to solve them. You can expect several years of the famous Boris shrug as he tells us, in his attractive manner, that there’s really not very much he can do.
We hear the administration’s complaints, that the system is blocked with bureaucrats, that a Mayor has little power to make a genuine difference. Are there really more than one hundred employees of TfL (London’s own transport department) who earn over £100,000 a year? You have to go to the fifth level of the bureaucracy before salaries dip below six figures. Yes, it’s really, shockingly, true. Any action on the cards? No, sorry, too difficult. Maybe in ten years it will be better, we’re told (or maybe then it will be worse… make your own assessment.)
And for all that money, the traffic feels worse. A friend took two hours last Sunday morning to make the short car journey from Putney to Croydon, with the kids in the back feeling sick and then upset as they missed an important event in their lives – all because the streets were mangled with hundreds of unattended work-sites. Everywhere in London, the roads are dug up, then left untouched to wreak their havoc. You'd think it wouldn't be so hard to impose some order on this frustrating constant chaos. But planners tell us that it is impossible. More and more congestion is inevitable. This might seem trivial, but the pointless wasting of a morning because bureaucrats just don’t give a toss is typical of every interaction people have with their government and the services they supply. Here’s real rub: If they can’t fix these easy things, we can hardly expect them to fix the difficult things like crime.
Who will make a change? Will it be Cameron? Can Cameron promise us that he will not be like Boris? Because if Cameron ends up being just a higher-up version of a do-little mayor, then for millions of people it won’t be worth the effort of voting.
Cameron needs to convince us that he will not just make a fine figure, but a real difference. Only this will seal the deal with the British electorate. For most people, life is a daily struggle. Is he on their side? Is the Conservative Party properly obsessed with making their lives easier? Is anything actually going to get materially better if his team occupies Number 10? Will the money go further? Will any hassle actually be lessened? These things must be ingrained in all his thinking. For all I know, they are. October is when that message must come across, in a way we all understand and believe.
I’m a big fan of the Post-Bureaucratic Age (and for those who find those letters mystifying, I’ve written about it here and here). I think the Cameroons’ understanding of how the Internet will change government is profound and genuine; but there’s no way they can make it interesting or convincing to the population, not right now. The PBA model will be appreciated if and when it is put into practise, but it has no value in the campaign to connect Cameron to the people. That connection is an emotional tie. For me, David Cameron began to make it when, in the expenses row, it looked as if he really cared more about the outrage of the people than the outrage of his MPs. That was a good start. There’s a long way further down that road.
As for Boris, maybe I’ve been unfair. Of course I’m a supporter. He’s done many good things in his first year. Ousting Ian Blair. Opposing Heathrow's third runway. Stopping the extension of the congestion charge. But these are election year initiatives that win voters. They are not difficult first year reforms that will cause pain now but produce dividends in three years' time. Where is the confrontation with the transport unions? Where is the cull of over-paid public sector workers?"
Remember the joy Conservatives felt when he ousted Ken? The story of politics can’t just be that short glorious moment of winning the game, followed by the long drag of losing hope. Something’s got to change. By the time of the election, Cameron should be able to point at London and say, “see what a difference a Conservative can make”.