David Cameron today launches the Conservative campaign for local elections across the country. After a difficult few weeks for the government, the prime minister will no doubt hope that the focus can now shift from topics such as snooping and charitable donations. This morning’s papers suggest that may be a tough task, with the coalition taking flak for how they have handled the recent controversies.
Speaking In Derbyshire, Cameron will make the case that "every single person you meet has a reason to vote Conservative". The latest polls tell us around two thirds of the country can find more reasons not to. The speech is a clear attempt to counter the increasing perception that Cameron’s Conservative Party do not care about ordinary people, describing them as “the party that cares about the strivers, the battlers, the family-raisers, the community-builders”.
This is a significant and necessary move after a canny weekend of manoeuvring from Labour leader Ed Miliband. Also speaking in Derby, Miliband claimed on Friday that: “That is where Labour stands. With you, on your side in these tough times. That's what we're fighting for in these local elections.” He then followed up his calls for a profound change in politics with an unexpected move on party funding on Sunday. Dismissed by the Tories as “weasel words”, Miliband’s offer to cap one-off donations to political parties at £5,000 was an attempt to further paint his rivals as self-interested while Labour promised sensible reforms to “restore trust in politics”.
The statement was, of course, teeming with partisanship. With criticism of the government stronger than at any point and Miliband determined to press that home in these local elections, it is perhaps also time for Cameron to restore some trust in his leadership.
His speech indicates he will seek to do so by making the local case for the Conservative Party rather than a national one: "Which party runs the best-value councils in the country? Which party has the lowest average council tax on a typical Band D home?
"Which party is leading the way on freezing council tax again in most places this year - when it doubled under Labour? Yes, the Conservatives. All the Labour councils remain trapped in their old wasteful ways."
It is an intriguing battle. While Miliband makes the wider case against the government, Cameron will seek to press home local issues. That this battle is being fought is, in and of itself, significant. Nick Clegg has admitted that the government is ‘in a rut’. Tory backbenchers, and even ministers, are threatening revolts over a number of issues. U-turns appear inevitable on more than one policy. David Cameron needs to step up to the plate, otherwise these local elections will form just part of a national narrative that is beginning to slip away from him.
UPDATE: Eagle-eyed cynics amongst you may have sought some explanation as to why both Miliband and Cameron chose Derby as the setting for the launch of their respective campaigns. Well, it turns out such cynicism is justified. A preview of the upcoming elections describes Derby as "A key battleground for all three main parties".
The LGIU explain: “The Conservatives (16 seats) and Lib Dems (12 seats) run the council in coalition but Labour is the largest party (22 seats). Labour will be targeting gains of four seats to take control but only a third of council seats are up for election. With the background of the controversial Bombardier decision and the prospects for parliamentary marginals, especially following the Boundary Review, this is one to watch.”