Ten minutes on Channel 4 News Fact Check website will give any reader a clear insight into the Conservative Party of 2013. So far removed are the Tories from the reality of higher suicide rates, the spike in the number of homeless and the record youth unemployment rates, that they cannot truly claim to understand or empathise with the problems their policies are exacerbating. Instead, they stand in parliament and put forward spurious, and by this stage completely unbelievable claims that near full employment is just another few cuts away.
As easy as it is to buy into the notion that Cameron is inherently bad, it’s an arrogance rather than a wickedness which breeds his aloof attitude toward the struggle of millions affected by austerity. If evidence of this was required then it came in the form of his announcement of a referendum on membership of the European referendum. Ideologues on his backbenches are impassioned on Europe, but where is the clamour from the general public? Tory strategists will point to increased polling for UKIP but the latest IPSOS-MORI poll shows no public desire to have the Europe issue dominate the agenda. UKIP, like the SNP, are prospering despite rather than because of the central plank of their manifesto. It is surely no coincidence that these two parties are fronted, unlike other mainstream parties, by leaders who excel at tapping into a longing for populist, straight-talking.
But, it is not the misreading of public opinion that makes Cameron’s arrogance so dangerous for his political future. It is the belief, held by almost all leaders of the Tories, that Europe is fertile ground for electoral success and party unity. Cameron need not look too far into the past to find Conservative leaders who have placated the ferocious Eurosceptic right only to be punished by an electorate with more pressing priorities. In 2001, facing a Labour government enjoying an unusually long honeymoon period, William Hague put Europe front and centre of his General Election campaign. The Daily Mail – brother in arms with the Conservative right in the war for hyperbole, – and Hague roared “12 days to save the Euro” and warned that a Labour victory would see the end of parliamentary democracy as we knew it. Grand statements intending to engender fear tend to work well when the issue is salient to the voting public, but when only 14% of the general public see it as “very important” then you risk being viewed as melodramatic. Indeed, of 11 listed factors that might contribute to how a voter will decide, Europe and the Euro finished dead last.
Cameron hyped his referendum speech for months, and chose to highlight the issue so early in the parliamentary calendar, in the hope that it will disappear; that he can now campaign on the economy and welfare. Again, he shows ignorance toward the almost singular focus of his backbenches, namely Europe and withdrawal. Hague too believed that turning right early on Europe would bring his backbenchers onside but the issue stuck as the manifesto pledge his party obsessed over while the public sought assurances on health and education. The arrogant plot like no others and Cameron must have realised the folly of his ways only days after his referendum promise. The very people the Prime Minister sought to pacify have been encouraging a rookie, Adam Afriyie, to stand against him. Those of us on the left might wince at thoughts of Cameron as a moderate but so extreme are members of his party that winning them over is an exercise in futility. If unifying all strands of the Conservatives was not the result of his risk taking then what of his fortunes in the opinion polls.
Last week brought some good news – for the first time in months the Conservatives made inroads in Labour’s lead. But, to his undoubted frustration, his success was the very definition of a bounce rather than a game-changer – a poll carried out by his former party Chairman found that it was temporary. In fact, the same poll showed that it actually focused the publics mind on the issue, but it showed them to be more pro-European than his party believed.
It would seem, therefore, that on both counts – public faith in his leadership and party unity – Cameron failed spectacularly with his announcement. But, there is also the hidden dangers of further limiting his ability to play a part in Scotland’s 2013 independence referendum. While it was always unlikely, due to Scotland’s aversion to all things Tory, that ministers would play a significant role in the debate, this saga has shown his claim that long drawn out referendums to be harmful to business to be hypocritical at best.
The left is fumbling in the dark in an attempt to oppose the coalition government but the past two weeks has made the future that bit more predictable. To win the next election, Cameron already required an almost unprecedented result – no Conservative Prime Minister has improved their vote share second time round since Anthony Eden in 1955. It’s now almost a year since polls reported even a tie between Labour and the Conservatives and this latest blundering is not likely to see that change quickly. Ed Miliband and his advisors might be keen on fashionable academic gurus but they’d be well served taking heed of the words of wisdom of one of the oldest strategists on record – Sun Tze’s encouraged those faced with a conceited opponent to “pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance”. Listen up Ed, because Cameron is proving to be a foot shooter extraordinaire.