Gordon Brown, who begins his visit to the US tomorrow, is enjoying a significant boost in popularity, having turned round a nine-point deficit to the Tories in April into a nine-point lead today. He has an 18-point lead over David Cameron over who would make the best Prime Minister. The Telegraph comments on Brown’s “social conservatism” – stopping the expansion of casinos, reclassifying marijuana as a more dangerous drug, concern over 24-hour drinking – and its seeming popularity with the voters. At the same time, however, Brown is unobtrusively rolling back Tony Blair’s most valuable reforms of public services.
How Cameron responds to this is the greatest test his leadership has faced. As The Spectator’s Matt d’Ancona admirably puts it, the party is “dicing with death.” The last thing it can afford is any sort of coup against its leader, failed or successful, which would probably finish the party forever. At the same time, it cannot afford to have its leader self-destruct, by forcing some sort of confrontation that would have the same effect (for example, by following former Defense Secretary Michael Portillo’s “blood-on-the-carpet” advice). Yet Cameron’s recent missteps – rejecting selective education, portraying the party as potential winners in a no-hope special election, talking about Rwanda while his own district flooded along with most of Middle England – raise serious questions about the judgment of the leader and his closest advisers. Cameron’s personal popularity ratings have plummeted and to suggest, as some around him appear to, that this is because of whispers about him in the Westminster Village is to seriously misread exactly how he is coming across to the British people.
This needs to be a time of retrenchment for the Tory leadership. If they do not challenge the image they are cultivating of superficiality and elitism (a fatal combination if there ever was one), they may well go under. There has already been talk about portraying Mr Cameron as “more serious.” Well, yes, but he can only do that by thinking through his conservatism properly, returning to first principles. That should lead to a more serious approach to policy, and indeed pronouncements that are informed by conservative philosophy rather than by focus groups or adopting policy packages from non-conservative sources. A realization that the benefits of conservatism can be expressed using, for instance, egalitarian language may also be useful. Three recent policy reports – on social issues, globalization and national security – are actually strongly infused with conservative philosophy and need only be presented correctly to appeal to the “center ground” that is so important to the leadership without at the same time alienating the party base.
Gordon Brown is, in my opinion, too cautious a man to call an Autumn election, but he might well call one next Spring. That gives the Tory party about nine or ten months to load the dice in their favor.