James Forsyth’s column in this week’s Spectator is annoyingly rather similar to something I have been pondering for a while. He argues that all the indications are that the Conservatives will be using David Cameron as the figurehead for the 2015 campaign (even more than usual), partly because the essential choice then will be who people want as Prime Minister, and partly because David Cameron is still polling ahead of the party generally.
He makes the interesting (and depressingly correct) point that this is partly because of the failure of the modernisation project to succeed in a wider sense; and that there is a serious (and to my mind, underestimated) risk of Labour and the Lib Dems using all the more eccentric ideas proposed by various out of sorts Tories as a kind of warning to ‘look what a majority Tory government wants to do’.
One further thought though. David Cameron polls ahead of the party, that’s true. He is at his best when he is doing those big, bold, open set-pieces, and the honest, straight-forward one to one interviews and discussions with either interviewers or normal voters in a Town Hall type setting. And yet: the gap is narrowing.
He is doing lots of defensive work (less than in the middle of last year, to be fair, but the year is young yet). As Tim Montgomerie notes in his Times column this week, he makes a lot of speeches; and they are all over the place. Individually, they are good and make arguments in a sensible and rational way, but – for example – having said in the Birmingham conference speech that the next election was all about welfare and education reform, his next speech was on… crime.
He should leave his Cabinet to make these speeches. He should remain above the fray of the day to day, and make a consistent, big picture argument about what the government is doing, why it’s necessary, and – crucially but it’s been missing so far – where it will lead to. He should cement himself as the leader: as Prime Minister, because incumbency is also a powerful decider in voters’ minds.
And there are a few things he should not do too. He should not allow it to seem as if he is being pushed around by the extremes of either his own party or others. He should not issue statements, for example of condolence – sad though it is – so often. He should not just assume that incumbency, the comparison with Ed Miliband, and the expectation/hope that the economy will come good will lead to a Conservative majority in 2015; he has to work at it. He – and the rest of the campaigning team – has to understand that for the next two and a half years, what Conservatives look and sound like, and what people’s perceptions of their actions are, is absolutely fundamental to what happens in May 2015.