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Cameron struggles to ditch ‘toxic Tories’ image

Cameron struggles to ditch ‘toxic Tories’ image

🕔10.Oct 2012

Upon becoming party leader in 2005, David Cameron immediately set out to repair the severely compromised Tory brand.

A series of public relations disasters through the late 1990s and into the 2000s, culminating in the  expenses scandal where MPs were found to have claimed for everything from moat cleaning to duck houses, helped to reinforce the general public perception of Conservatives as greedy, self-serving, arrogant and rather unpleasant individuals.

This, combined with a hangover from the Thatcher era, left the Tories with a huge problem. They were invariably seen as the instinctive cutters of public services, and in particular a party with a mission to destroy the NHS.

In his early days, Cameron’s hunch that wholesale change was required if the party was ever again to form a government on its own began to be reinforced by the results from focus groups. Bold policy initiatives might attract keen support from a wide range of voters, but that enthusiasm evaporated when respondents were told that the policies came from the Conservatives.

In other words, the political party once regarded as the most successful in the world could sell nothing at all. The brand, as the marketing people would say was toxic.

It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that Theresa May, who attracted the wrath of many grassroots Conservatives by describing the Tories as the ‘nasty party’, has been rewarded by Cameron with one of the great offices of state. Other modernisers, and former party leaders, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague, are also in positions of power and influence.

The question has to be asked: is David Cameron’s change agenda actually working? Are the Conservatives moving back to respectability and electability? Or is the poison so far ingested that a long, lingering death is inevitable?

The answer is clouded, of course, by the extreme financial crisis facing the coalition Government – a crisis, incidentally, not of its making. It is hardly surprising, with no sign of an end to austerity, that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats lag far behind Labour in the opinion polls – although, in Labour’s case, Mr Miliband is not yet achieving the 20-plus percentage points lead that would point to inevitable victory at the next election.

In an entirely unscientific test of opinion, Chamberlain Files tested the water outside of the ICC after Mr Cameron’s closing speech to the Birmingham party conference

One of the many left-wing protesters with banners received a surprising reaction when bellowing at a Tory delegate: “Your leader has got to change”. The Conservative, a red-faced man of the shires, shouted back in an even louder tone: “Yes you are so right”.

Do not be fooled into thinking that the angry party foot-soldier wanted Cameron to be even more of a moderniser. Quite the opposite, of course. He, like many in the conference hall, demands a clear right-wing agenda, including tax cuts, benefit cuts, commitment to a referendum on quitting the European Union and, emphatically, no gay marriage.

Meanwhile, three middle aged men, possibly tourists, stopped to gaze at Tory banners outside of the ICC. “The party for one and all? The one nation party? I don’t think so,” said one of them, with the others expressing agreement before walking on.

Conferences are tricky beasts for party leaders. David Cameron sought to enthuse his troops, despite the tough times facing the country. He dwelt on his own brand of almost 1950s One Nation Toryism – hard work, family values, helping those less fortunate than yourself – but also attempted to get away with far tougher messages about reducing the welfare bill and the national debt.

An underlying theme through the conference, repeated by several cabinet members and the Prime Minister, involved some unfortunate stereotyping, contrasting the ‘strivers’ rising at some God-awful hour, working day and night to get on in life, and those apparently happy to stay in bed all day and live on benefits. The words ‘benefit scroungers’ were never used, but the implication was crystal clear and certainly cheered-up the red-faced shire Tories.

Predictably, Mr Cameron attempted to make a virtue out of his privileged upbringing at Eton and Oxford. “I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education. I’m not here to defend privilege, I’m here to spread it,” he told the conference.

He promised to bring the benefits of independent education to all, via the state sector, through the development of academies and free schools. Of how long it might take for this to feed through into higher standards for all, there was no estimate.

There was a dewey-eyed section about his disabled, stockbroker father who espoused the virtues of hard work and providing for his family, although there was understandably nothing about his mother’s far more aristocratic upbringing.

Was his speech what the conference wanted to hear. Well, just about. He won a reasonable, although not ecstatic ovation. More to the point, was it what the country wanted to hear or is it still a case of toxic Tories?

Only the Great British Public has the answer, through the ballot box at the next election. Watch this space.


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