Saturday, April 11, 2009

PETER OBORNE: Sorry, but a Tory election victory is far from certain

PETER OBORNE: Sorry, but a Tory election victory is far from certain | Mail Online

I don't usually like what Peter Obourne writes, but he more or less sums up where the British political parties are right now.

...many pundits say Cameron is a certainty as the next Prime Minister - being in a position similar to the one Tony Blair held all those years ago, in Easter 1996, a year before New Labour's historic election win in May 1997.

Indeed, the similarities between the two men's situations are striking. Back in 1996, Blair was a fresh-faced leader of the Opposition in his early 40s leading a rejuvenated party against a tired, incompetent and sleazy Government.

Cameron is in exactly the same position. Yet a Tory victory at the next election is by no means assured - and events in recent weeks have suddenly underlined precisely why Cameron still has much to do.

First, the G20 summit displayed Gordon Brown at his most formidable. Even the Prime Minister's enemies have been forced to admit he shows an admirable resilience. He refuses to concede the slightest admission that he is the discredited leader of an embattled Government.

While at Easter 1996, Blair faced, in John Major, a Prime Minister who was on the ropes, Brown shows no sign of defeat. Even his harshest critics - like me - must acknowledge that the G20 summit agreement, however dishonest, was a presentational triumph.

But the bigger worries over Cameron concern his personal leadership qualities. He has yet to command anything like the massive coalition of public support that Tony Blair was able to deploy. Many voters still feel suspicious of the Tories, and last week provided several examples why.

The first blunder came when Edward Garnier, the Shadow Justice Minister, called for the ban that Labour imposed on fox-hunting five years ago to be repealed. This is an issue about which many Tories feel passionately, particularly those who - like Garnier - represent well-off rural constituencies.

Yet fox-hunting is of almost zero interest to most people. Therefore, raising the subject merely reminds voters that many Tory politicians, including the party leader, inhabit a different social world to them.

Reforming the ban on hunting (which, incidentally, seems to be continuing as a sport regardless) should be at the bottom of the list of priorities of any incoming Conservative Government.

Then there is the public perception of what a Tory administration might do to reform the NHS.

Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP whose forensic assault on Gordon Brown in the European Parliament made world headlines last month, raised the prospect that the Conservatives might privatise the NHS. Hannan is a rising star and has been given a privileged speaking slot at the Cheltenham conference.

However, if Hannan continues to raise the spectre that the Tories may ditch the treasured principle of the NHS remaining free at the point of delivery to all who need it, he could single-handedly destroy all the Tories' election chances.

Finally, last week also saw an inept radio interview from Shadow Chancellor George Osborne in which he seemed to raise the prospect of the Tories breaking what had been binding commitments on public service pay.

This is especially important because the desperate state of the national finances means whoever wins the next election is bound to face key decisions about slashing public services. Osborne was right to broach this sensitive issue, but he did so in a maladroit way.

As a result of these potentially dangerous stumbles, it is still possible to see how the Conservatives can throw away the next election. Of course, when he eventually goes to the polls, Gordon Brown will present himself as the grizzled voice of experience, the only man with the administrative competence to save Britain from financial catastrophe.

He will also employ the very accomplished Labour propaganda machine (run by the same experts who assured Blair of his 1997 triumph) which will portray the Tories as a nasty, selfish faction lacking both experience and judgment.

Indeed, it is worth remembering that Blair won power for the third time in 2005 by exposing what Labour claimed to be a secret Conservative agenda when the Tories' Deputy Chairman claimed there might be more cuts to public services than his colleagues had admitted, and when another candidate spoke of the 'creative destruction' of the public services.

On current form, Cameron's Tories risk repeating history. His opinion poll lead is still fragile and a hung Parliament is perhaps the most likely outcome.

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