David Cameron, Mr President?

Written by Andrew Hawkins on 21 May 2013 in Opinion
Prime minister versus statesman: Andrew Hawkins looks at the value of running a presidential campaign to win voters’ hearts and minds

This article is from the May 2013 issue of Total Politics

The Conservatives Party’s 2010 general election campaign put David Cameron up front, even if he was a bit too air-brushed. The rationale was clear: he connected better with voters than Gordon Brown did, even if the poll evidence was not always conclusive.

Ditching Brown gave Labour a popularity boost of around four percentage points, but political parties rarely think strategically when choosing replacement leaders. By electing Ed Miliband, Labour had clearly not learnt from the post-Blair experience, or it would have made jolly sure that David had won. They are now saddled with a sub-optimal choice of leader compounded by the widespread view – still – that he nicked the leadership from his brother, whose recent departure they so vocally regret.

Fast-forward to today, and the ‘presidential factor’ – Cameron versus Miliband – is central to the Conservatives’ 2015 election hopes.  But will it work? It’s certainly risky. Cameron polls badly in terms of being seen as ‘just a slick salesman’ and too posh, but you can get away with being a toff as long as you’re a competent toff, and that’s where Cameron’s positioning on the economy helps him.

First, though, why the presidential style of campaign? One reason is the received wisdom that just as Brown dragged his party’s poll ratings down, so Ed Miliband will do the same, whereas, in contrast, Cameron is, so the line goes, the political equivalent of Viagra. There is indeed some sense in this logic, as the table below shows:

In April 2010, Ipsos MORI asked a similar question about whether voters liked Brown and/or the Labour Party. The equivalent figures are startling because Brown’s net rating in 2010 was identical to that of Cameron today (-23 per cent) and the Labour Party’s net rating was also similar to today’s, at -11 per cent. The difference, however, is that the proportion who said they liked Brown in April 2010, at 37 per cent, makes both Cameron, on 26 per cent, and Miliband, on 19 per cent, look pretty unpopular. Now the question wordings are different, but it suggests that while Miliband’s popularity rating really is dismal, Cameron has little reason to be upbeat either.

As far as the two main parties are concerned, there’s not much to divide them on economic competence. However, there is when we look at the leaders, and there’s plenty of polling showing that Cameron is seen as a safer pair of economic hands than Miliband. However, just as their net popularity ratings are all negative, the three party leaders and their economic sidekicks all have negative net ratings on running the economy. See graph opposite below.

Why is this important? Because, despite Miliband’s exemplary claim to economic superiority – he was giving economics lectures to students while Cameron was on the opposition backbenches – his association with the last government makes him seem at least partly responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.

Given that the economy eclipses every other issue in every issue tracker you care to name, the 2015 election message will surely be that a vote for Miliband would be a return to the ‘bad old days of spend, spend, spend’.

But why could the presidential strategy not work? The problem is simply one of risk. In ancient times, the death of a leader in battle would mean slavery or worse for the defeated side; likewise, in a presidential-style election battle if Cameron were caught with his trousers down, or suffered a catastrophic failure in authority, there are 303 Conservative MPs whose careers depend on him.

So the gamble will be that at a time of crisis voters will flock to the security of whom they know. While this may be true while Cameron has a lead over Miliband on the economy, it has not really helped the Conservatives so far. They still trail Labour by around 10 percentage points.

For Labour’s part, it’s harder to see how a presidential election can work, given their leader’s unpopularity. Miliband will make more of a virtue of his ‘One Nation’ approach by portraying that Labour is a party united in tackling the country’s problems, in contrast to the in-fighting Conservatives. He will also be keen to highlight his ‘ordinary Joe’ appeal.

Ultimately, though, whether the 2015 election is truly presidential depends on whether the broadcasters succeed in getting the parties to agree to leader debates again. And here Cameron is in a tricky position because of the likelihood that Nigel Farage will demand inclusion, and Cameron risks appearing a coward if he refuses. Without the Farage factor, however, Cameron has less to fear from them than Miliband does.

Tags: Andrew Hawkins, Issue 58, Polling, Presidential campaign

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