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The Coalition’s Vulnerabilities

Last Updated: Friday, June 3rd, 2011

The mood in ‘Camp Cameron’ is very good at the moment. There’s a real spring in the Tory step. The Conservative leadership was delighted and surprised in equal measure by the best local election results for a new governing party in thirty years and they can’t quite believe this week’s ComRes opinion poll (only one, mind you) that had them level-pegging with Labour. Internal Tory focus groups are producing such dire readouts of voter perceptions of Ed Miliband that Tory HQ are praying that Labour won’t acquire the ruthlessness that characterises the Conservative attitude to under-performing leaders. Leaner times lie ahead for the Tories, of course, but the underlying weakness of Labour’s position gives Conservative strategists hope.

Nonetheless I’m expecting a big push over the next few weeks from the Tory leadership to address what they see as three leading vulnerabilities: crime, the NHS and the general compassionate agenda.

Crime is the issue that causes the Cameroons least worry. Even during the dark years of 1997 to 2001 when Labour had large opinion poll leads the Tories kept a nose in front of Labour on being trusted to fight crime (immigration was the other area where the Conservatives retained an advantage). Although Tory HQ knows that Ken Clarke is upsetting the right-wing newspapers and many of their readers they believe that it’s the easiest problem to fix. Cameron will be making a first effort next week with a speech in which he’ll begin to reassert his law and order credentials. Labour thinks it’s on to a winner with falling police numbers but Ed Miliband is less keen to exploit the issue than Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper (for reasons I don’t understand). The fact that Whitehall can’t control constabularies’ decisions on police numbers is a first big test of the Coalition’s localism agenda.

Cameron once said you could summarise his political passion with three letters: N.H.S…. and without being panicked the Tories do see the NHS as a big vulnerability. They don’t think the NHS will ever win the Conservatives a majority but it can kill Tory candidates if it gets on to the table as a problem. Over the Cameron years the Conservatives eroded all of Labour’s 25% lead on being trusted with the health service and fear, unlike law and order, it won’t be easy to rewin the NHS battle if they lose it over the next few months. There will be significant dilution of the Lansley reforms and those that are left will be introduced more gradually. The key battle underway is the battle for credit for the changes. Cameron is frustrated at Clegg’s attempt to own the retreat. Having fought so hard to establish himself as a defender of the NHS the PM doesn’t want his Deputy to look like the service’s true protector. Labour’s health spokesman John Healey is widely regarded by Conservatives and there is concern that Andrew Lansley isn’t connecting with NHS staff or voters. He (like Ken Clarke) won’t be reshuffled soon, however, because Cameron is set against a rejigging of his government and opening up searching questions of whether the various left, right and Liberal Democrat factions have got more or less power as a result. Cameron, I understand, will be devoting more of his time to the NHS in coming months than any other issue to compensate for his Health Secretary’s flat-footed media style. On the question of a reshuffle it will be limited to the junior ranks and obvious candidates are big under-performers like Jonathan Djanogly and Crispin Blunt (both in Ken Clarke’s beleaguered justice team).

Finally there’s the brand issue of compassionate conservatism. Protecting the NHS is the single most important component of the Tories’ ‘we-care-too’ identity but expect to see the Prime Minister investing more time in the overseas aid commitment (from which there’ll be no retreat), the welfare reforms, apprenticeship programmes and academies that are serving poorer neighbourhoods. The Tories do worry that the north remains frozen to far too many Conservative candidates. They can’t win in the midlands, north, Scotland and Wales if they don’t look like a party of the heart AND head.

Tim Montgomerie

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

 

Operation ‘Castrate-the-Right’ is underway: [Even if the Tories win a majority at the next election] the general view is that certain Liberal Democrats would be offered baubles by a majority Conservative government including some policy commissions and quangoes. There may even be a small handful of ministerial positions for Orange Bookers. Just enough would be offered to keep the door open to future co-operation with the Liberal Democrats but there would be no second coalition. More here: http://j.mp/jyWI53

In a ConHome interview, Francis Maude laughs off talk of multiple relaunches of the Big Society: “I absolutely undertake that we will be re-launching it this week, next week, the week after, probably several times a week, and if you want to keep a tally of the number of re-launches we’ll be well into three figures by the end of this year because we will talk about it all the time…I’m fairly relaxed about what people write about it, actually, because the truth is that people have some sort of broad understanding of what society is…a bigger stronger society is one where more people do more things with each other, for each other, in their communities, for their communities.”  More here: http://j.mp/kgu7kN

Nick de Bois MP writes that now is the time to back Andrew Lansley – and competition in the NHS: “My absolute conviction is that right now, on the vital NHS reforms that we signalled in our manifesto, we are in danger of compromising too much… The first thing we should stick with is our core principles on reform, but we also have to stick with, and show our support for our Health Secretary. Andrew Lansley is an excellent Health Secretary, who has deep and broad support on the backbenches.” More here: http://j.mp/iLkvNK

ConHome identifies the most rebellious Tory MPs during the Coalition’s first year:  There has been a total of 286 Commons votes in the year and the most rebellious Tory MP, Phillip Hollobone, has trooped through a division lobby without a Government whip for company on no fewer than 83 occasions. Details here: http://j.mp/jGwQAJ

David Cameron commits a further £2.25 billion in international aid to fund immunisation programmes in Africa: Britain will be making a “substantial” extra contribution to help reach the increase in the budget for immunisation programmes between 2011 and 2015, which will save an estimated four million children’s lives in Africa. The aid pledge was discussed with President Obama during his state visit to this country earlier this week. The Obama administration is being asked to give $450m to the programme. More here: http://j.mp/kPwkkg

Ryan Bourne of the Centre for Policy Studies on how the Bank of England’s inflation forecasts are getting increasingly inaccurate: “The issue for the Bank surrounding its forecasting record is therefore about credibility. Do the public and the markets maintain trust in the Bank to be acting independently of government aims? Its poor forecasting record over the past few years is undermining the case it has made for low rates. And if credibility completely evaporates with persistent high inflation over the next 12 months, there is a risk that inflation could begin to spiral further as expectations adjust.” More here: http://j.mp/luZ964

In brief:

Tory members believe that the Liberal Democrats’ best impact on the Coalition has been to raise the income tax threshold; their worst impact has been to stop Human Rights law reform See here: http://j.mp/lNuL0W

Rob Hayward explains how the Liberal Democrats lost 40% of the council seats they were defending last month but did much better in places where they had an incumbent MP See here: http://j.mp/iMPVj5

Will Labour join with Tory rebels to stop bailouts? See here: http://j.mp/lsToK4

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