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PMQs win for GB was a direct result of Cameron’s strategic failure

Posted on 3 December 2009 | 8:12am

So GB trounced Cameron at PMQs yesterday. That was the word used by my taxi driver, who had been listening on Five Live, and by plenty of others who texted, called and variously communicated the view that GB had been on form and DC on the floor.

I subsequently watched it myself – don’t you just love the Parliament channel, shorn of commentators whispering that Nick Clegg is the leader of the Lib Dems, and pundits telling you what you ought to think – and I would have to agree with the cabbie.

Strategy is the key here. GB is right to keep banging on about inheritance tax because it speaks to what people are instinctively beginning to feel about Dave – that he is a pretty standard Tory who thinks if he sprays on a bit of ‘I care about poverty’ and smiles more nicely than Michael Howard, nobody will notice.

The Tories and their media friends will try to present this as class war, as they will any reminder to the public that Cameron went to a school that is a symbol of a system of class and privilege, and a fairly big barrier to Cameron’s efforts to present himself as someone who gets the life of most people.

This crazy inheritance tax policy, one of their few firm commitments, dreamed up a couple of conferences ago, is fast becoming a potent symbol of the politics of privilege, that those who have should be helped to have some more. At a time of plenty, it might have seemed a jolly good wheeze. Right now, with the Tories ready to make savage cuts to public services, it doesn’t look too clever.

One PMQs does not a political summer make. But the reason these exchanges matter is because they are often the place where competing strategies are forged.

Tony Blair worked out his opponents’ defining weaknesses over time, over the despatch box. Major’s weakness in facing up to the issues that divided his party. Hague’s poor judgement which no amount of wit (a strength which became a weakness) could conceal. Duncan-Smith’s unclear direction and all too clear opportunism. Howard’s opportunism, nastiness and bandwagoning so extreme that he (with Dave at his right hand) at one point made gypsies the centrepiece of his campaign. (He’s got form on the conkers front you see).

Cameron’s weakness is that he has failed to do the strategic and policy heavy lifting to persuade the public his party has really changed. The reason is that he knows deep down his party hasn’t changed and it doesn’t really want to. 

His highly effective presentation of the pretence of change can only take him so far. But the reality of a standard Tory toff who knows his party hasn’t changed so he can’t do much on the policy front and when he does it is right-wing nonsense like inheritance tax cuts for the rich or vacuous rubbish like his speech on conkers and goggles – oh my God did he really deliver that speech? – will eventually catch up on him. And it is. He can’t say I didn’t warn him. I’ve been saying it for yonks.

He does not have a clear sense of direction for his party. So why should the country think he has a clear sense of direction for Britain?

  • citizenx

    And of the blatant lie about Spain being in the G20?

    “oh, its part of the EU, therefore a member”

    Is that what your man meant?

    Roll on the election and the hope of permanent destruction of New Labour and all the nasty pieces of work who’ve brought it upon us.

  • @jlocke13

    When the labour party sink to using class warfare you know they are worried. I don’t know about you Alastair, but I had no choice in who my parents were, how rich they were or where I went to school…even your hero TB went to the “Eton of Scotland”….Attacking a persons background is little different to attacking someone because they happen to have been born black…

  • Kath Chibah

    At last Brown is beginning to show up Cameron’s manifold flaws – the public have been crying out for this for so long. At last a challenge to the Nick Robinson version of reality………..If Brown keeps going like this there is a lot more to be optimistic about than labour supporters have been led to believe recently.

  • Jane A

    I wonder if Dave is at the mercy of his yes men, in that no one seems to be suggesting to him that to win an election, he needs to raise his game & drop his complacent heir-to-No10 attitude. People will not just vote Tory because they “fancy a change,” for a start. Not many people will fancy the sort of change which leaves them with less money in their pockets and takes funds away from public services which need them the most. He underestimates the public who are smart enough to want some concrete policies spelled out.

  • Rick

    Great analysis Alastair. It was great to see Gordon on top form and at last seeing the Tories exposed on this. I also think Cameron’s condescending tone towards the Prime Minister does him no favours – all too often he sounds like a public school bully. Some say this is Labour appealing to core vote – but actually I think this question of services vs inheritance tax cuts demonstrates to the wider public where the two parties priorities lie, and it therefore has a much wider resonance.

  • Charlie

    AC. The role that you are playing in preparing Gordon Brown for his weekly encounters with Dave is, at last, beginning to have its effect.

    Can we look forward to you bringing your vast experience to bear and formalising your role as an advisor to No10, or will your role remain essentially informal?

  • Charlie Reynolds

    Spain is a member of the G20?? That is what I took away from PMQs! GB being happy after saying this did not make him look any better than when he said Britian was best placed to ride the recession or that we could look forward to 0% growth. I can’t see anyone trusting this blatant liar.

    I don’t care where Cameron went to school. Tony Blair went to Fettes but that was not his problem.

    Cameron and the Tories have been honest about their plans after the election with more detail than I can ever recall from a political party. Their message is probably not popular – and if they were merely strategists they would not have bothered surely. We all know that government debt needs to be curbed. The tories have set out the reality we face. Labour is in denial after reinflating the bubble. The worst is still to come.

    Trying to appeal to the core vote when you have spent 15 years ignoring them and supporting bankers and CEO’s huge salaries is all too transparent to everyone.

    I kind of feel Gordon and Labour should have to suffer being in power for the next 5 years. Or at least I would
    if it wasn’t that it would destroy Britain.

  • Colin Morley

    Good to see GB getting the upper hand at PMQs. Whatever I or anyone else says about the man, I do believe he is sincere against DCs obvious PR front. Problem is that PMQs do not an election win – vast majority of the populus never watch or listen or even care – Sadly the media agenda is what sways most – and I don’t see a single newspaper headline about how well GB performed at PMQs – not newsworthy enough. Vicious circle.

  • roger

    I think Campbell has confirmed what we all knew ages ago – he’s been feeding Brown the PMQs soundbites.

    I don’t know what universe the Left inhabit – the man I saw masquerading as the PM was unbalanced, no doubt about it. Brown was as high as a kite.

    We’ll see how far these bigoted and vicious attacks upon Cameron gets Labour and Brown.

  • Em

    The inheritance tax policy is proof positive the party hasn’t changed. Voters realise the Tories can’t count on having a new north sea of oil every time they are in power so they can maintain some social services whilst keeping taxes low, and, when push comes to shove, the Tories will favour their rich friends to the rest of the electorate and those who are in greatest need.

  • Cassie

    Well done on LBC, and well done to LBC for raising the Coulson bullying case. The failure of the media to follow that story is a form of corruption. I see the FT has a story today about Cameron flogging himself to donors. Don;t suppose Sun or Times or Mail or Torygraph will follow that one either

  • Harry Gee

    Oh I went all nostalgic when you mentioned Tony taking apart Major … and Hague … and IDS (I had totally forgotten about him) … and Howard.

  • Quietzapple

    The stuff about Spain and the G20 is nonsense, as Sir Iain Dale well knows, contrary to his tedious pursuit of the matter.

    The G20 is a forum in which Finance Ministers, and more recently PMs/leaders meet to discus finance etc.

    Spain has been attending for a while, and most people who are not tendentious pedants looking for a riposte to those who pointed out Chameleon’s errors, for which he had to apologise, re the muslim faith school he bad mouthed, would just accept that Spain is a G20 member to all intents and purposes for PMQs.

    but . . .

  • Ctesibius

    ‘… my taxi driver…’ Tube a bit down-market for the Islington ruling class?

  • peter robertson

    Spot on with GB’s perfomance at PMQ yesterday. The best I’ve seen him. Labour has a good message, the party should be proud about its record over the last 12 years and show the Tories for what they really are….clueless

  • Hazico

    Hi Alistair-
    just seen the Times article online re the campaign plans- and I think excellent choices.
    It would be great to recreate that passion and fighting spirit from conference.A combination of GB’s solid economic policies,and a touch of humour and “streetwiseness” will come across well!

    There are certainly many holes to pick in the consrvatives’ lack of relevant policies(other than nitpicking and opportunistic topics)- so I think Labour should go for it and have a field day!

    However- I think negative campaigning should be kept to a minimum.Just sticking to the achievements and aspiations/values should be enough.

    Somehow an acnowledgement or reconnection with “core voters” must be acheived though- many are feeling alienated and angry.

    Hope you don’t mind a few suggestions…but thanks and good luck!!

  • Joe Perry

    Labour needs their spinmaster, Alastair Campbell. In fact they need all the help that they can get, but whilst dictator Brown is at the helm they have no chance whatsoever. Anyone publicly fighting for Labour will have egg on their face and a big embarrassment to live with.

  • Mark \’Elvis\’ Wright

    Best GB performance for quite some time.

    Although there seems to be something different about GB in general ever since the Jackie Janes situation.

    It’s almost as if since then, his raw emotions having been revealed for all to see at his press briefing on the Janes incident, GB has been determined to never allow his actions, or inactions, to be misinterpreted ever again.

    He has been solid in his outlining of his government’s Afghan strategy. The arguments have been strong, persuasive, well presented and not bogged down with ‘GB speak’.

    For the first time in a long time I found myself nodding along to his assertion that “What people are asking (what usually follows this well used GB phrase is precisely NOT what anybody is asking and is a way of just dodging a difficult question) is why after 8 *years* (his emphasis) there hasn’t been a single sighting of Osama Bin Laden?”

    A simple question. But an important one.

    Am I making a minor point in highlighting GB’s ability to ask a basic question? Maybe. But it demonstrates to the public at large that GB can, and does, think about the issues and ask questions in the same way as everybody else.

    GB’s body language has changed. He seems somehow *bigger* whereas Cameron for the past 2 or 3 weeks is sounding increasingly high pitched with a trace of panic in his voice.

    The good ship GB seem to have new wind its sails. Things feel just a little better on the Labour benches for it.

    I’m not writing off the clunking fist just yet.

  • Boudicca

    Brown’s strategy is to dog whistle to former Labour core voters who have deserted Labour for the BNP. The message is ‘forget immigration, when we can have an old-fashioned British class war.’ It will only appeal to people already inclined to vote Labour.

    Just as an example. I am a divorced, single mother of two. I work in the public sector. I live in an ex-local authority house. I should be voting Labour. But I won’t be. Apart from the fact that the current Government is so appalling, I own my house (in the SE). I have a few savings and recently inherited a relatively small sum on money. I am not wealthy by a long shot, but my combined ‘worth’ because of the value of my house takes me well above the Inheritence Tax thresh-hold. I can’t split the value with a partner, as Labour proposes, to avoid my sons’ paying Inheritance Tax.

    So, for being a single mother, if I get run over by a bus, my sons will lose out under Labour. But they won’t under the Tories. And there are millions of people in the midlands and south, as well as more affluent areas elsewhere in the country who are making the same calculation.

    As for criticising Cameron because of the school HIS PARENTS chose for him …. what about Blair (Fettes), Harman (St Pauls for Girls); Balls (also privately educated); Woodward and the rest. They are just as much toffs as anyone in the Tories – but they are also hypocrites.

  • Alan Quinn

    Have to agree with you AC, Gorders battered him and Dave looked rattled.

  • Alex Sewell

    DC = Wolf in sheep’s clothing

  • Brian Tomkinson b

    Your only strategy (I am not sure you know the meaning of the word) is to revert to basic class warfare. I suppose those private school educated in your party, whom you must consider as hypocrites e.g your pal Blair, Harman, Balls, Woodward you can tolerate as useful fools. It is in fact you and Brown who have learned nothing during the last thirteen years and are taking your discredited party back whence you came.

  • Jim O

    I don’t think it matters what school Dave went to. Except that, in certain individuals, it fosters contempt for the rest of society. That is Dave’s, and his cronies’, biggest failing and it is the raison d’etre of the Tory Party.

  • packo

    When George Osborne said that “we are all in this together”
    he was plainly quite unaware of the degree to which his circumstances differ from those of the rest of us. This is the real problem. It is not a matter of class. It is the assumption of this Tory elite that they understand ordinary British people. They don’t. They never have.The point of Tory government is to protect the vested interests of this elite.

  • James Cherkoff

    A few years go I was told by a very prominent Tory journalist that DC would never recover from the revelation that he cycles to work while someone drives behind him with his suit and shoes. I noted the other day a report that people do indeed still remember this story about him.

  • betty curtis


    I was delighted with PMQ’s & when Gordon thru the one liners @”Call me Dave”
    I don’t care who came up with them ie The Times says it was you AC
    Two of the shots at Mr Cameron seemed premeditated: accusing the Tory leader of a “1930s mindset” on the recession and a policy from “the playing fields of Eton” on inheritance tax. Another, that “the more he talks, the less he says”, looked truly off the cuff.

    “Brilliant” & clever! & exact!

    The elite Cameron & his (no Policies)Conservatives believe it’s their God given right to be in Government.

    Cameron has all the trappings of Royalty(related to William 1V) & that’s why it rings true to Gordon & Labour party supporters that everything “Dave”says sounds like it was trumped up on the”PLAYING FIELDS OF EATON”

    They have proved they are unfit to Govern & no understanding of the Global financial tsunami once again let me reiterate A Tory leader with a”1930’s mindset” as we say in Scotland “GON YERSEL GORDON”sock it to him”You’re the main man”

  • Andrew Williams

    “The Tories and their media friends will try to present this as class war, as they will any reminder to the public that Cameron went to a school that is a symbol of a system of class and privilege, and a fairly big barrier to Cameron’s efforts to present himself as someone who gets the life of most people”

    Hmmm, George Orwell went to Eton was George he out of touch with the lives of most people? Or that other Old Etonian Dominic West from The Wire, does he not understand the lives of real people? As an actor he seems to be able to get into the head of an ordinary working policeman quite convincingly.

    For what it’s worth I think people are more turned off by career politicians who they feel know nothing about the world outside Westminster than they’re concerned about where someone’s mum or Dad sent them to school. That’s one of the reason that people like Boris…he had a life and career outside of politics.

  • Marek

    Did you notice that TB was ever so politely rejected by the EU?

    We all know why.

    Reading your blog tells me that you are running out of ideas. It may have worked before people realised how you operate. After all, Fettes must be so different from Eton in that hardly anyone has heard of it.

    You should try to grow up. Everyone knows that you were sacked for spreading out-of-date information for going to war. But then again, people tend to be polite.

    The thing about Chilcot is that you cannot control the outcome.

    You are clearly not always into objectiveity but if you look at the analysis you will see that social mobility has slumped from around the time that grammar schools were abolished. How could that be?

  • Andrew Williams

    The Eton stuff isn’t a big matter for most people. The house flipping expenses and the non-dom status of MPs resonates more negatively with people. It’s the fairness test. Most ordinary people don’t mind if you were privately educated so long as you don’t think you’re above the rules that apply to them.

  • samuel skipp

    Agree it is the same old Torie party. Cutting inheritance tax cuts for the very rich but yet are committed to cutting educational matainace allowance after 200 long years they still are not ready for oppurtuinity for all! I don’t recieve EMA but i see first hand how important it is as many of my friends rely on it yet the Tories with 16 out of thier 22 cabinet being millionaires struggle to acknowledge that fact saying its a bribe to stay in education. It is actually a symbol of support for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to stay in education saying it is a bribe is actually a very patronizing view of the youth but yet this is the Tory party we are talking about. Also was watching this week a while back and completley agree with you when you said about Labour mp’s taking the fight to the Tories people like Abbot need to acknowldge this before it is too late.