By Tim Montgomerie
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"At a certain point in a political leader’s career, a national idea of what they are and what they’re there for can snap into place. Thereafter — however absurd a caricature of the leader’s personality, whatever violence the simplification does to the ambiguity of any human story — the legend becomes exceedingly difficult to amend or dislodge… What will be the story of today’s Conservative leadership, and in particular David Cameron and George Osborne? My contention is that unless they watch out, Britain could decide quite soon — and not in a good way — and that it will then be too late for them to do much about it."
Matthew Parris asked the above question in his Times column (£) less than a month ago. In offering possible answers he even suggested that the Prime Minister might "duff up" Merkel and Sarkozy to ensure he was defined in the right way in the minds of the British people. Within a blog I wrote yesterday evening I briefly followed up on something that Graeme Archer for tweeted and I want to elaborate on it now.
The fact is we who love politics are fascinated by every twist and turn of Westminster village life. Most people are too busy to notice anything but a few big things about a politician. Here are the three moments through which I suggest our party leaders have defined themselves.
Defining moment one was Nick Clegg's decision to flip-flop on tuition fees
Graphic from today's Sun.
The Lib Dem leader's ratings have been in the toilet ever since. He is seen as untrustworthy. The Lib Dems will be taking a massive risk if they have him as their leader at the next election. If he stands up in TV debates most voters won't believe any promise he makes. In the last 72 hours he has added to his slippery image. The Sun paints him as two-faced today for being relaxed about Cameron's EU veto on Friday and then – after pressure from within his party – getting all shirty yesterday. The Lib Dem leader complains that Cameron has been kidnapped by Tory Eurosceptics. Well, it seems, Clegg has been kidnapped by the Europhiles that dominate his party.
Defining moment two was Cameron's veto
Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, The Guardian and the FT wanted Britain to join the €uro and they are now upset at Britain's exclusion from the FU project. The British people have more common sense. Two opinion polls show overwhelming public backing for Cameron's decision. By margins of more than three-to-one voters think Cameron was correct to become the first British Prime Minister to say no to Europe. If Cameron is wise over the next few weeks he will add to this reputation and wait for it to solidify. Clegg, Ashdown and his other critics are inadvertently helping this process. They are keeping the moment alive and making Cameron's largely unavoidable decision seem much bolder than it really was.
Defining moment three was Ed Miliband's election
Perhaps not the moment itself but Ed Miliband's decision to fight the Government's cuts. Even in Feltham and Heston where Lord Ashcroft found a 22% lead for the Labour candidate, most voters back the Cameron/Osborne line on the economy. Ed Miliband's decision to argue that you increase debt in a debt crisis has made him (almost) unelectable. He has not escaped from the trade unions that elected him as Labour leader and the Ballsian economic thinking that meant Britain has one of the worst borrowing problems in the developed world. The next election won't be a referendum on the government's economic policies – it will be a choice between Coalition economics and the economics of the two Eds. That's why, despite many challenges ahead, Tory strategists are hopeful that they can win the fight.