By Tim Montgomerie
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Matthew Parris has conducted an interesting survey of thirty Tory MPs in marginal seats. You can read my summary of the results he found on the MPsETC page. The MPs come across as a pretty cautious bunch and are anxious about making any big moves. They largely oppose, for example, a big tax cut or any more welfare cuts. They don't want a U-turn on gay marriage or any further reorganisation of the NHS. They like the idea of reforming human rights laws but, sensibly, don't want the party leadership to promise anything that can't be delivered.
Matthew Parris (Times (£)) also finds that all thirty think David Cameron is an asset to the Conservative Party:
"At least one (and I suspected a handful more) had personal doubts about their leader, but all were clear that on balance he won them votes. Most of them reminded me that he is “more popular than the party”. He’s a “huge plus,” said another. I jotted down phrases like “massive asset”; “More voted for him than for me”; “He got me elected.” “Not just ‘on balance’,” one MP corrected me, “Cameron’s by far and away our strongest card.”"
It's not a view I share. I, of course, accept the opinion polling that finds he's preferred as PM to Ed Miliband. I recognise he is good on TV and projects a wholesome, family image. Overall, however, I think he's a smiling public face for a failed strategy.
- I hold him responsible for repeated strategic errors. He chose to make the party more liberal when the Tory problem was primarily that we were seen as too hard-hearted and insufficiently committed to the public services and to the economically insecure. Error has followed error…
- The decision to match Labour's spending pledges in the last parliament when it was obvious they were unaffordable.
- The poorly-worded and "cast-iron" promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
- The agreement to Lib Dem participation in the TV debates and the decision to put the confusing Big Society idea at the heart of the Tory election campaign.
- The promise not to reorganise the NHS before undertaking one of the biggest ever NHS reorganisations.
- The failure to build a digital campaigning operation to compensate for the massive acceleration of the decline of party membership that has happened under his leadership.
- The huge and unnecessary deterioration in relations with the centre right press.
- The failure to get to grips with public spending which means the Coalition won't come close to meeting its central goal of deficit elimination.
- Most of all, I hold Cameron responsible for the splitting of the centre right vote. Successful leaders spend 50% of their time looking after their existing voters and 50% reaching out to new voters. In recent months Cameron has scrambled back to a more balanced approach but the damage is already done. UKIP is booming in the polls and today's FT reports (£) that they are about to broaden further – adding a low tax message (which seems completely unaffordable to me) to their existing core messages on Europe and immigration. UKIP, remember, don't need to win a single seat in order to still deny Tory candidates victory in key marginals.
David Cameron should not, however, be challenged. If Tory MPs attempt to pass a motion of no confidence in Mr Cameron in the middle of these very difficult economic times they would look self-indulgent to voters who are struggling to make ends meet. There's not a Tory inside parliament who could transform the party's polling position. Unlike in 1990 when Tory MPs removed Margaret Thatcher the party is now in coalition. The Lib Dems might not sit by quietly while the Tories choose a successor to Cameron. They might bring down the Coalition if one of the candidates for Tory leadership questioned key components of the Coalition Agreement.
Cameron remains the person most likely to win the next election for the Tories. His recruitment of Lynton Crosby and John Hayes to his Number 10 team suggest that he is beginning to form an operation more sensitive to electoral realities and parliamentary opinion. Hopefully we'll soon see sustained rather than launched-today-gone-tomorrow announcements. It's also true that Labour's lead is very small. Labour only averages a 10% lead. Despite huge economic difficulties voters prefer Tory oversight of the Treasury to the return of Ed Balls. Labour's headline lead could be whittled away by any of the following factors…
- A modest economic recovery (worth 2% to the Tories and would take 2% off Labour);
- A Kinnock-style Fleet Street onslaught on Ed Miliband (which could take 2% off Labour);
- A 1992-style tax bombshell Tory campaign against Labour's unreformed economic message (which could take another 2% off Labour);
- A new more Left-wing Lib Dem leader like Cable or Farron who reassures ex Lib Dem voters that they should not vote Labour but return home to Britain's third party (another 2% off Labour);
- A sustained Tory focus on trusting the people on Europe with an In/Out vote and giving new rights to England (2% on the Tory vote and 2% off UKIP);
- SNP and Green participation in any election debates (2% off Labour, especially in Scotland).
These are obviously back-of-the-envelope figures but you get the idea. Labour is beatable if Cameron can find a way of re-uniting the centre right vote. Or most of it anyway.