By Tim Montgomerie
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David Cameron writes for this morning's Sunday Times (£) and sets out why the Coalition still has a uniting purpose. Two paragraphs stand out to me. One in which he set out some core beliefs and another in which he set out the Coalition's main achievements (so far).
THE COALITION'S CORE BELIEFS
- "We can’t keep paying the government’s bills on the back of more and more debt.
- We can’t keep creating jobs in the public sector to make up for a lack of private sector growth.
- We can’t afford a broken welfare system that pays people to sit at home doing nothing.
- We can’t put up with schools that don’t teach properly and exams that are too easy.
- And we need to find new ways of competing in a world where countries such as China are getting richer by the day and new technologies are transforming jobs everywhere."
THE COALITION'S MAIN ACHIEVEMENTS
- "We’ve got the deficit down by a quarter already.
- We’re reforming schools and welfare. We’re on the side of people who work hard and want to get on in life.
- We have tackled some long-term challenges — such as funding our universities, capping benefit bills and reforming public sector pensions — that have eluded one-party governments. Just last week the independent Office for Budget Responsibility concluded that we had cut the long-term costs of our public sector pensions by almost a half."
This is a good story to tell but it's not getting through to the public. Cameron's ratings, in particular, are poor. According to The Sunday Times/ YouGov poll (PDF) only 34% think Cameron is doing well and 61% think he is doing badly. 66% think he is out of touch (a -43% net rating). 44% think he is dislikeable (-2%). 47% think he is weak (-9%). 47% think he is indecisive (-7%). 52% think he has run out of ideas (-20%).
Michael Portillo thinks that central to Cameron's problem is that his rhetoric is much bigger than his content. He mentions recent interventions on the Lords, airports, infrastructure and long-term care but he focuses on the PM's recent EU referendum 'promise'. "You would need the brain of a Yorkshire terrier to believe it," Portillo writes in The Sunday Times (£):
"The issue to be settled by the referendum was not specified, nor the time, nor the question, let alone the consequences. Indeed, it might not be a referendum at all, but rather a general election, which is hardly something that a prime minister needs to promise. Like those street magicians with one coin and three fast-moving inverted cups, now you see it, now you don’t."
The solution, says Portillo, is for Cameron "to say much less, but to say each thing with conviction". Deliver on the kind of central objectives that Cameron sets out in his own article and there's a chance that the Conservative Party will be able to go the country at the next election with the same message that Margaret Thatcher won with — “You hate us and everything that we do. But you know that we are right, and that only we could be trusted to do it.”
Unlike in Margaret Thatcher's day the Left is reasonably united and the Right is in danger of dividing. Portillo is right, however, about the need for message clarity. I actually think the PM's Sunday Times article is one of his best expositions of the Coalition's mission but how many people will read it? Sadly the PM speaks and writes so much that even top journalists sometimes look away. An intervention from a Prime Minister should be an event. It isn't. And Downing Street is to blame for that.