26 November 2006

The retreat from politics

Just over a week ago (although it seems longer), we had the Queen's speech - that ancient ritual in which the monarch reads out the government's programme for the next parliament.

Few now can remember the contents and even fewer know the MPs' guilty secret – that most of them stayed away for the event and for the subsequent debate, treating the week as an extension of their holidays or using it for some quick grandstanding.

But, the same week the Boy was cuddling his black baby in front of the cameras (resulting in a photograph even the MSM seems to have found too contrived to use), there was another queen's speech, of a sort. This was the EU commission's work programme, which – unlike Blair's programme – runs to 38 closely-typed pages. And while it certainly shares the same high-flown rhetoric…

This Commission set out its strategic objectives at the start of its mandate: putting Europe back on the track of prosperity; reinforcing our commitment towards solidarity; strengthening citizens' security and, finally, projecting and promoting these priorities outside our borders with a stronger voice in the world. These remain the core direction for the Commission's work, and the foundation for the partnership approach essential to realising ambitious policies in a complex world.
… it also had something else in common. When the commission presented it to the EU parliament in Strasbourg, by the end of the debate the commissioners present outnumbered the MEPs, with the fragrant Margot Wallström complaining that the discussion went in all directions.

The communications commission then tells us that we can read the conclusions of the debate on the EU parliament site, for which she give us a convenient link. Hilariously, however, the link takes us not to the promised site, but to a press release headed: "Communication between the EU and its citizens should be improved". And, apart from the obvious gaffe, we see in the very first paragraph why it will not happen:

Parliament says that the communication between the EU and its citizens should be improved. It, therefore, calls on the European Commission to support the creation of a European public space dedicating sufficient coverage to European affairs throughout national, local and regional media. Member States should encourage the national public audiovisual channels adequately to inform the citizens about the policies conducted at European level.
They simply do not have the first idea about how to communicate with people and, other than devising ways of spending more and more money on their endeavours, they are going nowhere.

But, if the EU establishment is having difficulty dealing with communication so too is our own, especially the Conservative opposition. Cameron may think he pulled up a major publicity coup, flying off in his luxury business jet to Darfur but, even amongst his own faithful, the reception was hardly ecstatic.

And out in the "real world" – if it actually exists – things are not looking good for the Boy. As he approaches his first anniversary as leader of the Tories next month, a Mori poll for the Observer shows that his satisfaction ratings amongst British voters have plummeted lower than Tony Blair's. As for his party, the Conservatives are only two points ahead of Labour, on 35 to 33 percent of the vote amongst those saying they definitely intend to vote.

Furthermore, the soft cuddly Cameron does not appear to have appealed particularly to women and young people, with his minuscule two percent head coming, perversely, mostly from men and the middle-aged (possibly because they believe that the Boy is appealing to women and the young and, therefore, can win them the election).

But, most damning of all, only 25 percent of the electorate consider themselves "satisfied" with Cameron's performance as leader of the opposition - rising only to 45 percent among Tory voters, down from 60 percent in February.

And it was back in February that we recorded the findings of another Mori poll on the issues of most concern to voters. As we saw then, the combined category of "defence/foreign affairs/terrorism" scored highest, attracting 34 percent of the respondents questioned, compared with the 33 percent who thought NHS/Hospitals was most important and the pathetically small eight percent who rated "pollution/environment".

Even with Tory Diary clutching at straws, ignoring Mori and going for a GfK NOP poll which gives the Boy a ten percent lead over Gordon Brown, as preferred prime minister, there is a hard edge to that poll as well. In terms of who is best placed to protect the UK from terrorism, Brown leads the Boy by a factor of 22-21 percent.

Now, in the three or so years (or less) to a general election, anything can happen but my guess is that the "climate change" issue has already peaked and is a wasting asset when it comes to garnering votes.

Green issues have only gained so much momentum through the confluence of support from metropolitan clever-dicks, the media and opportunistic politicos. The "real world" has never been convinced by the hype, especially on climate change, and considerable hostility followed the publication of the Stern Report, not least because the politicians' sudden concern for the issue has been quickly interpreted as simply another excuse for more taxation.

If Cameron is relying on his "green" credentials to carry the election for him, therefore, he has also certainly missed the boat. And, while some of the perceived reluctance of voters to weigh in with support is put down to the current lack of policies, as my colleague argues, Cameron's "not-the-Conservative-Party" does actually have a lot of policies – it's just that we may not like them.

My next guess is that when we see the Boy's policy commissions report, and team-Cameron begin formally to articulate their policies, we will like them even less. But, more to the point, we as a nation face difficult military decisions in the next few years and, if we are to believe what we are told, the next few years are unlikely to pass without another terrorist outrage. And it is highly unlikely that the softy, greenie, baby-hugging Cameron will be seen to be up to the task of protecting the nation.

The carefully cultivated "man from Venus" image, to contrast with the more war-like "men from Mars" – Blair and Brown – will almost certainly rebound, in favour of Brown and his Labour Party. For sure, Cameron may pick up some votes on his heavily-worked pitch on the NHS, but the price will be the loss of his core support.

Worse still – and what he and his strategists do not seem to have appreciated – is that convergence on issues such as the NHS neutralises them electorally. Voters looking for "clear blue water" will no longer find it in the "soft" issues such schools 'n' hospitals. they will have to look elsewhere and the most obvious place for them to look is in the hard-edged policy areas of defence and security. Traditionally the strong suit of the Tories, these will be the battleground – one which has been abandoned by "team-Cameron".

Making it even more difficult for Cameron is what we have called the march of the minnows, the small party phenomenon which is going to rip poll predictions apart, not least because the polling model is based on a national two-party contest.

Thus, while political parties like the BNP are moving into the space vacated by the Tories, those self-same Tories - bolstered by inaccurate polls - are in complete denial. They refuse even to consider that minority parties might affect their chances of election and believe that, as the unpopularity of NuLab mounts, voters have nowhere else to go for a government, but to them. Little do they know the English, Kipling's Saxons:

When he stands like an ox in the furrow with his sullen set eyes on your own, And grumbles, "This isn't fair dealings", my son, leave the Saxon alone.
Something that will never show up in the polls are those "sullen set eyes", a deep and building resentment at the posturing and presumptions of the politicians that will frustrate attempts to coral everyone into the established parties who have treated them so badly. Enough – and growing numbers – are ready to abandon tribal loyalties and make the break.

Thus, early days it may be but it is safe to make one key prediction – Cameron's "not-the-Conservative-Party" will not win power at the next general election. The party called the Conservatives will lose.