Despite an eleven point lead in the latest opinion polls, the Conservative Party and its leader David Cameron are not doing well in their campaign to become the next ruling party in Britain. A series of missteps, a successful process of making Gordon Brown appear more like a man with emotions and focus and a continuing struggle with the economy are taking their toll on the party which should be winning easily.
Over the last year, the Conservative Party have polled ahead of Labour every week. At one point they were some twenty points ahead. But after six weeks of campaigning in 2010, their lead is narrowing and the party looks “wobbly”. Close to half of those polled see the leaders of the party as aloof and privileged, with many not being able to name some of the front bench leaders of the party. The Conservatives need a fifteen point lead to ensure that they will defeat Labour.
They are not campaigning well. Running a campaign around the theme “Britain is broken”, they have been exaggerating official data to make their point. For example, they inflated the rate of teenage pregnancy by a factor of ten and were called out for doing so by the media. They have made other missteps – their position on the family has changed twice since January and they have sent confusing messages about their strategy for the economy. The Tories also claimed that Labour was going to implement a “death tax” of £20,000 ($40,000), which turned out not to be the case, The image the media is now describing is one of confusion and uncertainty at the centre of the campaign.
There is also a growing fear amongst many electors that the austerity plan at the heart of their approach to the economy will be too aggressive, severe and painful. While many expect Britain to have to increase taxes and cut programs so as to reduce government debt and deficits, they also fear the consequences pg this “slash and burn” strategy. The party has done a poor job to date of being explicit about what this strategy will look like, what it will involve and who will be most affected. Attempts to clarify the party position have, so far, led to more confusion than clarity.
Meanwhile, the rehabilitation of Gordon Brown continues. This last week-end he could be seen describing his own emotional reaction to the death of his first child shortly after birth – weeping as he did so. He has also suddenly developed a sense of humour and his wife, widely seen as very sensible, is out explaining that he is not the temper-tantrum shouting megalomaniac that many have described working with in Downing Street. Picking up on Conservative gaffes, Brown is actually gaining ground. So much so that there has been talk, now silenced, of a snap election in April. The firm date is still May 6th of this year.
The British economy is the real issue in the election. With recovery from recession slow, government indebtedness growing and the fate of the Eurozone in the balance, the fear is that there will be a second recession in Europe, especially if interest rates rise quickly to stave off the debt crisis affecting Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Greece. The challenge for voters is to determine which party is more likely to manage recovery and sustain the economy over the short term. Brown, in a carefully built image, is seen to have a strong set of financial management skills, despite the fact that his actions as Chancellor has made the situation Britain faces one of vulnerability rather than strength. David Cameron’s dithering and apparent fumbling of the economic strategy will hurt him in the election.
The formal election call has not yet been made and the campaign is still unofficial. However, public perceptions are being formed and the Labour Party under Gordon Brown is doing better at this stage than expected. Some journalists are still pitching the idea of a hung parliament, but most are still placing their bets on a Conservative win, albeit with a narrow majority. We will know for sure three months from now.