By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
No-one loves this Government. It has no clear message other than deficit reduction, and attempts to offer one haven't worked. It stirs no enthusiasm among party activists: seats were empty for last year's Prime Ministerial conference speech. It has none of the natural communication with the strivers, battlers, Sid's heirs, C1s and C2s, Alarm Clock Britain – whatever you call them or it – that Margaret Thatcher achieved in her time and Stephen Harper is managing in his. There are too many Indians in its Downing Street operation and no strong Chief. (The best approximation to one is a civil servant, Jeremy Heywood – an eloquent fact). Too many decisions are bargained down to a basement lowest common denominator, of which the recent trade-off between scrapping penalties for early loan payments and appointing Les Ebdon to head the Office of Fair Access was a striking example.
It is tempting to conclude that a Conservative leadership more blue in tooth and claw would have more appeal. How does that belief square with the evidence? The polling that Conservative MPs were shown when I was one of them in opposition suggested that David Cameron's ratings ran ahead of his party's. What do they indicate now? I have checked, and findings presented to last week's Parliamentary Party awayday show the Prime Minister to be 16 points more popular than his party. (By contrast, Ed Miliband is a whopping 34 points less popular.) This is not a unbridgeable gap but it is big enough to be unmissable. Over 65% of those polled believe him to be respected, up to the job and strong – that last quality being, as Tim reported recently, one of the two key ones that party strategists hope voters will see in him. 56% believe he has a clear vision for the future (though they don't necessarily know what is it).
Cameron's ratings dipped last summer during Hackgate and rose last December after his Euro-summit veto. The BBC headlines proclaiming his isolation – complained of by Conservatives at the time – turned out to be unintentionally helpful. They communicated that regardless of what was vetoed (if anything was at all), the Prime Minister had gone into a room and said no when everyone else had said yes. He had stood out against a crowd. His party's poll ratings had not collapsed previously, despite the fearsome economic squeeze. They rose, and have stayed remarkably buoyant. In very crude terms, Cameron has kept the 36 or so per cent who voted for him in 2010 and, from time to time, added on roughly three points extra. This suggests that the Conservatives have benefitted from the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. Certainly, the party did unexpectedly well in last year's local elections.
The pledges to cut immigration numbers and tackle welfare dependency are especially popular. These are easier to make than deliver, but the benefits cap was a bit of a start: it has proved wildly popular with focus groups, whose only question is why it is set as high as it is. This suggests that a combination of the Prime Minister's centrist appeal and tough policies where the voters want them most are the best mix for the Midlands, Yorkshire and north-west marginals required for a majority next time round. Downing Street frets about the toff factor. It worries when Cameron tells a Shadow Minister to "Calm down, dear" or is discovered to have ridden a horse. But seeming born to rule hasn't done done him much harm to date. Ruling is what he does: less sparkily but more naturally than Tony Blair and therefore, perhaps, more durably too. The voters appear, at some deep level, to accept this – or to have done so far.
Essentially, the wisdom of crowds gets Cameron. It reads him correctly as a bright, tough, smart, traditional member of Britain's governing class – with a splinter of ice at the heart. The Conservative Party might be better off with someone else. But the polling evidence doesn't suggest so. Very much the reverse.