Cameron: can he silence the critics?

October 08, 2012, 12:07 PM GMT+0

John Humphrys asks: what does the Prime Minister need to do to reassert his leadership and to create a realistic chance of renewing his tenancy of 10 Downing Street?

People say that David Cameron does best when his back is against the wall. On that basis he should be performing very well. His party is doing badly in the polls; Ed Miliband is widely credited with having had a good Labour conference; and Boris Johnson, is positioning himself as Tory leader-in-waiting. As his party meets for its conference in Birmingham, what does the Prime Minister need to do to reassert his leadership and to create a realistic chance of renewing his tenancy of 10 Downing Street?

The recent period has been bad for Mr Cameron. By now the rewards of his tough economic policy were meant to be coming through, but the economy is still stuck in recession with only the occasional bit of economic data giving any hope that things might be about to improve. His government has been accused of a whole series of policy shambles, not least the most recent: the u-turn on the granting of the franchise for the West Coast mainline rail service, a fiasco that could end up wasting £100 million or more. And many commentators charge his government with suffering from drift: important decisions such as what to do about airport capacity in London being kicked into the long grass.

The Prime Minister knows he has some explaining to do. He told the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend: “I think all governments do this. You spend a lot of time governing and deciding and you don’t spend enough time explaining. And I think conference this week is a real opportunity to get out there and explain.”

Mr Cameron’s first task of explanation may be to remind his party that they are in coalition and therefore do not have a wholly free hand to govern as they would like. But this itself will not be easy. Many members of the Conservative Party have not really forgiven their leader for failing to secure a majority at the last election, thus ending up having to share power with the Liberal Democrats. Many think he has been too kind to the Lib Dems and has conceded too much to them.

Some of Mr Cameron’s strongest internal party critics, however, think that the Prime Minister’s need to keep his coalition allies on board is actually a rather convenient cover to hide the truth, which is that he doesn’t really know what he’d like to do as a Conservative prime minister anyway. To them he is little more than a slick public relations man who will cut and trim in order to curry favour with voters in any way that seems necessary.

Such critics on the right of the party still resent the way Mr Cameron explicitly set out to “detoxify” a party that they felt was in no need of being detoxified. They never liked all the hugging hoodies and stroking huskies that characterised the early part of Mr Cameron’s leadership and what they want now, as the party begins to limber up for the next election, is a clear statement of what a Conservative prime minister, unencumbered by pesky Liberal Democrats, would actually want to do for the country.

Their agenda is a familiar one of more radical cuts in both government spending and taxation, a tougher policy on law and order, a much more combative approach to the European Union and dumping policies they think a Conservative leader should never have had any truck with in the first place. Gay marriage is at the top of many lists.

Pre-conference leaks suggest that his critics should not hold their breath. The talk has been of more modest and narrowly specific measures, such as freezing council tax, putting a cap on the rise in rail fares and resisting big increases in the EU budget. All these may (or may not) be all well and good, but they hardly constitute a vision for a radical Tory Britain.

Mr Cameron’s supporters will no doubt wearily point out that the right’s agenda is nothing new and has never been successful in winning the party a majority. They will point out too that although the party as a whole is trailing Labour in the polls, this is hardly unusual in the midterm of a parliament and is only to be expected when it coincides with the longest recession anyone can remember. They will also point out that the Prime Minister personally continues to beat Ed Miliband comfortably in the party leadership polls.

Such a defence, however, is unlikely to make Mr Cameron’s back feel much less uncomfortable against that wall. That’s because he faces a formidable rival within his own party. Boris Johnson, fresh from his victory in the London mayoral election in May and having outshone the Prime Minister at the Olympics, appears to many in his party as a much better bet to lead it back into majority government.

They point to Mr Johnson’s ability to win votes from people who would not regard themselves as Tories. What must be galling for the Prime Minister is that Mr Johnson has achieved this even though he, himself, is an old Etonian and not exactly some horny-handed son of toil, capable of appealing to the masses in contrast to Mr Cameron’s Etonian privilege. His seemingly unique appeal to the Conservatives is his ability to transcend his gilded background and appeal to floating voters simply by virtue of his eccentric independence. Mr Cameron can never compete with that.

The Prime Minister may take some comfort in the fact that, as Mayor of London, Mr Johnson is no longer a member of parliament and thus ineligible to run against him as party leader. The Mayor has also said he will stay in office until the next mayoral election in 2016. But some commentators think he might seize an opportunity to come back into the Commons before then if a suitable London seat were to come up. He might justify the move by arguing that being a London MP would help him promote the capital’s interests within government. But once back in the Commons he could challenge Mr Cameron if the Tory leader seemed destined for defeat at the next election. Mr Johnson’s continued attacks on the government (over airport policy, for example) suggest he will not be shy to exploit his opportunities.

So the Prime Minister needs to live up to his reputation for fighting best when his back is against the wall. How should he do it?

What’s your view?

  • How well do you think David Cameron is doing as Tory leader and prime minister?
  • What do you make of the criticisms of him as running a shambolic government and lacking strategic vision?
  • Do you think he is too obliging to the Lib Dems or not? Do you think he should listen more to the policy advice of the rightwing of his party?
  • Do you think Boris Johnson would make a better party leader and prime minister?
  • And what single thing do you think Mr Cameron should do to silence the critics in his party?

Let us know your views.