University of Southampton
Strange things happen in politics, but at the time of writing, John McCain winning the US Presidency would be one of the strangest. There are many reasons why he is up against it, George Bush and Sarah Palin being two of them. But for me, the most telling is that McCain built a career around personal integrity and unwillingness to bend for party advantage (which nearly got him the nomination in 2000).
However, McCain in 2008 bent. The supporter of sound government finances offered big tax cuts. The sponsor of the Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act offered a ‘gas-tax holiday’. He reassured the religious right (whom he had previously labelled ‘agents of intolerance’) of his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Shifting long-term positions is at best high risk: one is quite likely to disillusion one’s supporters and repel independents without convincing those to whom one is moving.
Promising change is not a political tactic, it is a commitment. If you have decided that the problem is with your party and you offer to change it, then change it you must. Of course, change is a necessary condition for success, but not sufficient. Three leaders of the British Conservative Party (William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard) offered change, but reversed direction when opinion polls refused to budge, as Andrew Denham and I describe in our recent book for Manchester University Press, Democratising Conservative Leadership Selection: From Grey Suits to Grass Roots.
The heart of the book narrates David Cameron’s rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party, during the unprecedentedly long contest in 2005, and follows his attempt to use his mandate to force change through until the end of Tony Blair’s Premiership in 2007.
He used several methods, including reversing well-known positions that were deemed counter-productive (refusing to promise tax cuts), opening up new policy fronts (a new-found interest in greenery, bicycles and windmills), and making structural changes in Conservative Party procedures (introducing the ‘A-list’ of favoured Parliamentary candidates). It provoked a lot of opposition from many in his party and the press (which paradoxically helped cement the image of change), and helped the Conservatives build up large poll leads over Summer 2008.
As Denham and I argue, the mandate for change which Cameron received from the leadership election was conditional on his delivering those poll leads, and on his being able to promise the Conservatives election victory in 2010. But things have changed for Cameron.
The global financial crisis has focused attention on the economy, which is Gordon Brown’s area of expertise, and he has been able to shine as a problem-solver. At the same time, the Conservatives have spent three years trying to make the running on social policy – now they have to try to develop distinctive economic ideas without leaving too many hostages to fortune. Those giant poll leads have started to shrink.
The temptations to lapse back to previous styles of rhetoric must be strong, as politics seems to be polarising. On the left, Polly Toynbee has already opined that the next few years will see a battle between the ideas of Keynes and Hayek, while on the right Simon Heffer and others have called for John Redwood to be promoted to the Shadow Cabinet.
These are hard times for Cameron. His long-term strategy was always tough, and as recently as 2007, as I argued, although it was necessary it was not at all obvious that it would pay dividends in the life of this Parliament. By Summer 2008, the situation had changed radically, and Cameron appeared a shoo-in. A few weeks later and all is up for grabs once more.
But the point about a long-term strategy is that it is long-term. The vicissitudes of day-to-day politics cannot be used to judge it. One cannot plan for the long term, and then make sweeping changes because the polls have moved. That is not to say that one cannot adjust tack, and the Tories have called for some relaxation in taxes and regulations. But they have sensibly drawn the line at reversing previous policy commitments by calling for an actual tax cut.
Denham and I spell out the struggle Cameron and his team were faced with to try to motivate and implement change in the Conservative Party, and also review the failures of the three previous Tory leaders to achieve the same shift. It is absolutely no coincidence that Cameron is the only one of the four to enjoy a large and prolonged lead in opinion polls. Voters may or may not like the direction of change, but they certainly will resist someone who backtracks when the going gets rough.