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Cameron winning on media support but losing on leadership

Posted on 2 February 2010 | 10:02am

Leadership is in large part about how you react under pressure.

Pressure does not come much greater than that which faced Gordon
Brown when an economic whirlwind struck, and the world feared a plunge
into a 30s style depression.

This morning I look at a Financial Times front page headline
which says ‘Manufacturing surges back’ and above it a strapline
recording ‘fastest growth since 1994 – hopes rise for swifter recovery
– exporters buoyant.’

At least some of the credit for that must go to GB and the
government for stepping in as they did, making some very big calls
which have helped prevent recession becoming depression, and helped
limit the impact in terms of jobs, homes and savings. Not a bad year’s
work. Under pressure.

David Cameron, as Opposition leader, is always inevitably under some
pressure. But with so many economic and political factors stacked in
his favour, he can count himself lucky that thanks the the tamest media
coverage of any leader in our political lifetime, the pressure on him
has been less intense than on any leader in our political lifetime.

The narrowing of the polls suggests not simply that the economy is
beginning to pick up, and that some are able to make a link with
government actions, but also that the public are ahead of the media in
their questioning of Cameron and Co.

The weekend confusion over their plans for cutting public spending
are the result once more of Cameron’s failure to do the strategic and
policy heavy lifting needed to turn an Opposition party into a party of

So when they sensed the mood felt right for an austerity message,
that is what he delivered. When he realised that he had in fact got the
mood wrong, he trimmed his sails, then did so again, and again, until
now people are unsure what he is saying at all.

As part of his ‘rundown Britain’ strategy, he tries to put the UK in
the same bracket as Greece, whose economy is close to kaput. But in his
own plans he has now retreated from the obvious medicine such an
economy needs. This exposes the hollowness of his strategy – he lacks
the courage to take the tough decisions required by his own analysis.
So all he is left with is talking down Britain, which in turn erodes
the sense of hope and optimism an opposition leader should be able to

So whilst he traipses around playing back a line one of his people
heard in a focus group – namely that we can’t go on like this – his
poor shadow chief secretary is reduced to mumbling that first year cuts
are going to be ‘one billion, one and a half, something like that.’
Never mind the vagueness of it – back to not having done the work – it
is a pinprick if they are serious in their view that we face a
‘Greek-style budget crisis’ as George Osborne calls it.

Throw in the impact of the airbrushed posters, the far more creative
doctored versions of it, and you realise doubts about Cameron are
growing just at the time he should be cementing the deal with the
British public, making them feel it is both inevitable and right he and
his team should now be running the country.

He’s ignored my advice on strategy before, and I hope he will do so
again. But I’ll give him a bit more anyway. If Labour had been asked to
devise a policy that reminds people that Tories care more for the rich
than they do for the poor or the middle classes, it would have looked
something like the inheritance tax cut for the richest families in the
country that Dave and George came up with. He should drop it, even if
it means losing the donors who pressed for it.

And he would be wise to scrap his other tax commitment, to give a
tax break for marriage, which has already created enough confusion at a
time the Tory leader needs a bit more clarity in what what he’s saying.

GB may not be the greatest communicator in the world, and he may lack Dave’s touchy feely grasp of the instant soundbite.

But if they were to look back on the past twelve months – one has
steered Britain reasonably safely through economic crisis, the other
has created nothing but confusion in his tax and spending plans, and
blown half a million quid on the most ineffective and ill-advised
poster campaign since ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’

** Thanks for the kind and the not so kind messages coming through
amid book orders yesterday. Both are welcome, provided you pay £15 for
The Blair Years, half of which will be donated to the Party. For
details go to

  • jmedwards

    If just one news vendor would have the balls to report on some *detail* for once (without worrying they’ll frighten their audience with something so terrifying as detail), and explain why we are in a worse situation to handle this crisis than any other comparable country, things would swing the other way.

    It’d only take a two page dossier on the Government’s (read: Brown’s) poor (and sometimes deceitful) economic performance and handling of investment and spending over the last decade.

  • Charlie Harper

    Leadership is also sticking to what you believe in. Does Gordon Brown really believe in PR? No. Just doing it in the hope he can limp on with the Libs in a hung parliament. Farewell strong government. Bad idea

  • George Johnstone

    Not seen FT but sounds a bit rose tinted to me. I am a small businessman and whilst things are certainly not 30s style depression it is tough out there

  • olli issakainen

    In 2008 the support for the Tories was 48% – now it is 40% or even less (the Conservatives need 40% and they need to be 10% ahead of Labour).
    Nowadays leader´s character is more important in the elections than his policies. It has been said that so far Labour has been unable to tarnish the reputation of David Cameron. But he has managed to do it by himself.
    With all the money and army of researchers, the Tories do not seem to be able to get a single thing right. Latest example of their flip-flopping is, of course, cutting public spending.
    It seems to me that Policy Exchange´s report Controlling Public Spending and Government Deficits was partly behind the Tories´ original plans. In this report Sweden and Finland are used as examples. But we in Scandinavia have big governments and less poverty, so I would not compare us with Britain.
    Will it be the case that only the Mirror, New Statesman and IoS will support Labour in the coming election? I think that now that David Cameron and George Osborne have had their 15 minutes of fame, it is time for British media to get behind Labour.
    The reason for this being that Labour can be trusted to manage the recovery and repair public finances. But can we trust the Tories to do the same? Are you thinking what I am thinking..?

  • Margaret McDougall

    Just watched lunchtime news. BBC obviously obsessed with Clare Short laying into Blair as she has done many times. Stayed with it for the late coverage of Osborne. He does NOT know what he is talking about. Scary

  • Charlie

    AC a couple of questions for the spinmeister:

    – (re Claire Short) Was Cabinet(and subsequently Parliament) really expected to make a balanced judgement as to whether or not to endorse your/Blair’s view, based upon a carefully selected precis of the Legal Advice available prior to the Iraq War?

    Hopefully Lord Chilcott will probe a little further into this in due course.

    – Is Gordon Brown’s last minute conversion to PR just a cynical attempt to curry favour with wavering LAB/LIBDEM voters ?

    – Should Mandy and his Entourage be Jetting to Davos BA FIRST CLASS at our expense in these straightened times ?

  • Patrick James

    I do think that AC’s blog entry is very true.

    I would add that a major mistake the Conservatives have made is to put all their eggs in one basket. They have everything staked on Cameron, but now the public are going off him. In addition to his multi-faces and inconsistency I think that the public are just getting bored looking at him! He is hugely over-exposed. The affair the public had with him last year should have been happening now for the Conservatives. Instead they are just fed up with him.

    I think that Labour are doing the right thing by starting the process required for parliament and the public to look at an AV electoral system. As well as this being, imho, the right thing to do for parliament, I believe a very large number of Labour voters have wandered to the Lib Dems. This might help some of them to return to Labour.

  • Alan Quinn

    Never mind giving advice to Dave you need to give some to George too. No one from the tories would appear on Jeremy Vine’s show today to talk about the tories changing their mind yet again on the economy.
    In fact as Jezza said no one (except a racis)t would come on live to join in the debate and side with the tories.

    Finally on Clare Short laying into TB. Didn’t she vote for the Iraq war?

  • Bill Gardner

    Not enough credit is given to GB for the style as well as the substance of the recovery. GB’s greatest strength during the recession is that he has maintained the appearance of control throughout(not exactly his forte). And he certainly looked like World Statesman of the Year at the London Summit. In a crisis of confidence it is hard to over-estimate the importance of appearing on top of things as well as making the right decisions. Also Labour MPs all strictly on message. Just like the good old days!

  • s chapman

    Mr Gardner – classic head in the sand comment from a labour supporter in denial.GB lead us into a debt party that will leave the biggest hangover ever…and like AC once you have this total arrogance that whatever you do/say/write is always right then of course you have confidence,however misplaced it is.Lets face if you spend 1 TRILLION quid on the UK economy to save it don’t you think it should have had some impression, I mean jesus if the UK economy didn’t turn around on that back of that then we really do have a massive problem.Get real guys we need a change….and a BIG apology

  • peter

    Nonsense – leadership is primarily about being proactive, not reactive. Brown is merely a manager amongst a grey sea of other managers, he has no business being an (unelected) Prime Minister. Mediocre at best – bye bye Gordon.

  • Robert Jackson

    Talking about HM Opposition and lack of leadership…at PMQ’s today John Hemming – LD member for Birmingham Yardley – tabled a question about National Express unilaterally withdrawing the number 41 bus service in Birmingham.

    The bus contracts for the West Midlands are awarded by CENTRO which takes its political leadership from reps from the towns and cities in the region. The majority of these are Tory or Tory/LD controlled. Indeed John Hemmings was party to putting the Tories and Lib Dems into Power in Birmingham in 2004.

    So really the question about National Express withdrawing the number 41 bus should be placed at the feet of John Hemmings’ political partners – the Tories who run CENTRO.