John McTernan: Tender touch is Cameron trump card

The Tory leader has brought a far greater diversity into his parliamentary party, writes John McTernan
Going to work on his bicycle was an effective part of David Camerons Tory rebranding exercise. Picture: GettyGoing to work on his bicycle was an effective part of David Camerons Tory rebranding exercise. Picture: Getty
Going to work on his bicycle was an effective part of David Camerons Tory rebranding exercise. Picture: Getty

Tomorrow it will be eight years since David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party. If a week is a long time in politics, then 416 weeks is an eternity. Already Cameron is the longest-serving Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher. How has he done?

Well, to give him his due, he has saved the Conservative Party from total destruction. It’s hard to remember now, but David Davis was the favourite to win the leadership. Had he done so, we would be in the second term of a Gordon Brown government. Davis was unelectable under any circumstances. The threat of a fourth Labour term was what spurred Cameron and his closest allies into action. It was not just that defeat would mean that he and they would spend the best years of their political lives in opposition, it was also that Cameron and George Osborne could see their party might be out of power for a generation. It was not even clear that Cameron thought that he could win, but he did know “who dares wins”.

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The plight of the Tories was quite unprecedented. Until 1997 they had been the most successful electoral machine in Europe. They had seen off the Whigs, the Liberals and, in the 1980s, nearly did the same to the Labour Party. They were the only permanent party in British politics. Tony Blair ended all that. For three elections in a row, he pushed the Tories down below 200 seats, the lowest figure they had had since the beginning of the universal franchise. The Tories on the right who despise Cameron for not winning a majority always overlook the horrendous position the party was in when he took over.

To bring the Tories back into contention, Cameron forced his party into a rapid modernisation. Through the use of primaries and an A-list of candidates, he has brought a far greater diversity into the Tory parliamentary party. Though the Tories still have a long way to go in getting equal representation for women, the innovation of introducing primaries to British politics is a lasting one. The policy modernisation has not lasted so well.

Theresa May was spot-on when she said that the Tories were seen by voters as the nasty party. This was the point Lord Ashcroft made after the 2005 defeat. He did extensive polling among voters and found that they loved specific policies until they were told that they came from the Conservative Party. The brand was so toxic that any connection with the Tories was enough to put them off.

The new, younger, black and female faces Cameron chose to represent his party were one leg of the rebranding. The second was policy re-positioning. To show he was on the centre ground politically, Cameron embraced a powerful environmental agenda. From hugging huskies to putting a windmill on his Notting Hill home and cycling to work, David Cameron was backing up the slogan “Vote Blue, Get Green”. It was brilliantly and, in retrospect, cynically successful. The third element was the personal pledge on the NHS: “I’ll cut the deficit not the NHS”. That was undoubtedly the single most important factor in getting the Tories over 300 seats and making them the largest single party.

The problem with Cameron’s modernisation has been cruelly exposed in government. When he took over his party it was a coup d’etat, not a conversion. He captured the head of the Conservative Party, but not its heart. So whenever there is any political turbulence at all – and there is always some – a large number of his MPs revert to type. Every adversity proves to the Tory right that they were right all along. The coalition? “We couldn’t even get a majority against Gordon Brown,” they mutter. “Modernisation was an utter failure.” The rise of Ukip? “Time to drop the green crap and move to the right.”

For every political problem there is a solution which is simple, easy and wrong. This is a classic example.

It was not just a new face, or a new voice, but a new tone that gave David Cameron his advantage in 2010. The clichés – for example, “let sunshine have the day” – were cheesy, but they were effective. They weren’t just an emblem of change – they were the change. It takes as long to rebuild a brand as it does to destroy it – and message consistency is key. You can’t just say you’re nice once. As the cliché goes, when you are sick and tired of saying something, the public are just starting to hear you.

This is the dilemma that frames Cameron’s leadership – and which will ultimately determine whether he is judged a successful leader. Should he drive on with modernisation to retain and consolidate the centre ground, or should he move to the right to sweep up the voters who are leaning to Ukip? In one way the answer is easy. Keep going. Cameron is clearly in no-man’s land at the moment – neither damned as old Tory nor accepted as new compassionate Conservative. And all of Lord Ashcroft’s extensive polling says modernisation must go faster.

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But the politics are more difficult. Ukip is riding high in the polls, set, it seems, to win the Euro elections and gain seats it can use to target sitting Tory MPs. On welfare, Europe, human rights and immigration, the temptation for Cameron is to match Ukip with the added attraction that he can promise voters he can actually deliver. The advice coming from Australian campaign strategist Lynton Crosby is clearly that victory will come from consolidating on the right. This suits Osborne who has always had a harsh tone to his politics.

But, in the end, it is Cameron’s call. He has an emollient personality – it is far easier to believe him when he is being tender rather than tough. He won the leadership and the general election by being positive. If he wants to win again, he should play the hope card again.

• John McTernan was political secretary to prime minister Tony Blair