Crisis turning into real threat for PM

Allister Heath
IT still seems likely that the coalition will last for a while yet. But the pressure is mounting again, with the resignation of financier Peter Cruddas as Tory party Treasurer and fresh allegations about party funding dealing another blow to David Cameron. Many in the City have become too complacent about the longevity of this government, which seems determined to shoot itself in the foot at every possible opportunity.

The Budget contained a variety of grubby compromises which made it inconsistent, as well as sleight of hands that have turned out to be politically damaging and badly explained; the coalition’s unpopular minimum pricing of alcohol policy, launched to deflect attention from the row over pensioners’ tax thresholds, will do nothing to cut alcoholism or violence and will primarily penalise poorer, well-behaved drinkers; and now the cash for access story will bring back whiffs of previous sleaze scandals and suggest to the electorate that the Tory party is controlled by wealthy donors.

The polls were grim for the Tories even before the donations row: the latest two YouGov polls showed leads for Labour of seven-eight points, with the Tories on just 34-35 per cent. This is a disastrous result for Cameron, but not a surprising one: he and his chief strategist George Osborne failed to win the 2010 general election, which ought to have been unlosable, largely because of incompetent communications – and an inability to capitalise on bread and butter issues the electorate truly cared about. Cameron and Osborne’s performance has been true to form since the start of the year; the Conservative party needs to bring in new blood to advise the Cameroons, rather than relying so much on a small coterie of socially identikit associates and on civil servants.

Boris Johnson is ahead in London, partly because Ken Livingstone has upset so many Labour supporters – but also because the Mayor is a unique figure, with the sort of mass appeal (including the backing of many poorer voters) that Tories often used to have prior to the 1990s. But otherwise this has been a bad few months for the Tories: the rot started well before the Budget. Its fortunes peaked immediately after Cameron blocked a new European treaty in the early hours of 9 December. Even though Cameron’s bravery had been partly accidental, the Tories shot up in the opinion polls.

The bounce was massive, conclusive and lasted a couple of months. Five days after Cameron’s veto, the Tories were in the lead in the polls again, at 40 per cent against Labour’s 38. Those days are now political ancient history. All of the gains and more have been reversed. Cameron went back to being his normal self; he even backtracked on Europe. Just before Cameron’s “veto”, several Tory MPs had told me a leadership challenge – albeit a doomed one – was no longer out of question. These dissidents (a small minority) subsequently came back on side. But the situation in the Tory party four months ago felt eerily like it does today. There is nothing its MPs hate more than being way behind in the polls, with no strategy to tackle the crisis. Add to that a crippling donations row and the continuing fallout from Andy Coulson’s defenestration and one has an explosive situation. Cameron is in a far bigger pickle than most City folk realise.
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