After the celebrations of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee and now looking forward to the London Olympics the coalition is heading into more turbulent political waters due to the on-going Eurozone crisis. The Conservatives have only just survived a severe battering from the budget, the petrol panic, double dip recession, and numerous indiscretions with Murdoch's News Corp, which has come to be collectively known as the "omnishambles". Despite the triumphant re-election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London the Conservatives continue to lag behind Labour by nine points according to YouGov. Commentators are now increasingly sceptical of a Conservative majority in 2015 without a clear sense of mission and some attempt at 'differentiation'.
What should concern David Cameron and his advisors in Number 10 the most is how the large majority of the British people still do not exactly get what he is about. Political commentators sometimes feel like they are nailing jelly to the wall when they attempt to articulate a 'Cameroon' doctrine or 'Cameronism'. A clear Conservative vision from David Cameron has not just been frustrated by compromise with the Liberal Democrats, though that is certainly a real problem. It has a great deal to do with a weak Number 10 operation and the disproportionate power held by Whitehall bureaucrats.
With Steve Hilton's departure from Number 10 this problem can only get worse, especially when the Director of Strategy, Andrew Cooper is someone who believes the Tory grassroots to be "vile" and has made policy development heavily dependent on polling and focus groups. Then the Director of Communications, Craig Oliver seems to lack certain media skills, as is evident in his foolish tantrum with the BBC's Norman Smith while the camera was still rolling. This has been exacerbated by the fact that David Cameron now has very few friends left in the media because of the Leveson Enquiry. That is not to forget just how powerful the civil service has become with its iron grip over Number 10's policy machine due to the self-imposed cap on SpAds, and Sir Jeremy Heywood's burgeoning hegemony in the governance of the coalition.
These issues have to be dealt with over the summer if the Conservatives wish to be in a strong enough position to win 2015 and to make the coalition last the course. The first task David Cameron must take on is healing the gaping cracks in the coalition. At the reaffirmation of their 'marriage vows' David Cameron and Nick Clegg did not manage to convey the renewed sense of mission that is required. Speaking as someone who back during the heady days of 'rose garden radicalism' actually found Nick Boles' proposal for a 2015 electoral pact in 'Which Way's Up?' to be rather appealing, it is now somewhat depressing to see how obstructive the Liberal Democrats have become. Something has to change. Or rather someone has to return. David Laws should emerge out of political exile and come back into Cabinet in order to oversee the development of a new Coalition Agreement which can give the government some momentum. In 2010 he managed to make the coalition seem like a marriage of conviction rather than just convenience and has continued to deliver a coherent vision for it future.
But David Cameron also has to now show what kind of majority Conservative government he would lead if he is serious about winning the 2015 general election. 'Differentiation', as it has come to be known in recent jargon, has already started it would seem with David Cameron's recent speech on welfare reform. But what is more important is an efficient Number 10 machine which can communicate effectively the successful work being done right now by Conservative ministers like in education and welfare, and to produce policies which do not cause unnecessary hassle as was the case with the so-called 'pasty tax'. For this to happen there has to be an end to the cap on SpAds so that ministers are not held hostage by their civil servants. A new media savvy Director of Communications who knows how to speak to the Conservatives' core vote and the press at large has to replace Craig Oliver. In 2015 the Conservatives need to appeal to a broad range of floating voters but victory can only be assured once the core vote has been 'locked up' instead of being allowed to drift towards UKIP or political apathy.
Only then can David Cameron articulate a clear vision to the British people and demonstrate the Conservatives' triumphs in government and the need for a mandate to govern alone in 2015. Once this has been achieved then history may well look back kindly on a two-term Cameron premiership. If he does not win 2015 then it will be a harsh fact that the Conservatives would not have won a general election outright for over 23 years. It is time for David Cameron to get the coalition back on course.
This article first appeared on the Voices blog on 5 July 2012
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