When Parliament went on its summer break back in July, prospects were looking good for Prime Minister David Cameron. Growth, jobs and consumer confidence were all rising and the Conservative Party was closing the gap with Labour in the opinion polls. But Cameron returned to the Commons on Oct. 7 a weakened leader.
Three key factors have cost Cameron his positive position since the start of the parliamentary recess: a defining conference speech by Labour leader Ed Miliband; Cameron’s own disappointing conference performance; and the government’s Commons’ defeat over Syria.
Each of these factors is symptomatic of deeper problems with Cameron’s leadership. Labour is seizing the initiative because Cameron’s vision for his government is unclear. The prime minister’s flittering concentration and reliance on a narrow circle of advisers lost him the vote on Syria — one of too many parliamentary humiliations suffered by his government during its three-year tenure.
Although growth is returning to the British economy, wages remain stagnant while prices continue to rise. Almost 5 million British workers earn less than a living wage. While the majority of Britons are failing to gain from the economic recovery, benefits are accruing at the top. Labour’s relentless emphasis on living standards at its party conference at the end of September, therefore hit Cameron where he is most vulnerable.
Playing on voters’ perceptions of the Tories as privileged, out of touch and self-interested, in one of his better jokes, Labour leader Ed Miliband quipped: “The rising tide seems only to lift the yachts.”
Positioning himself as the champion of “the squeezed middle” against predatory corporations, Miliband pledged to freeze household energy bills for two years if elected prime minister in 2015.
With polling showing energy prices near the top of public concerns, Miliband’s energy policy not only showed his capacity for bold initiatives, but also resonated with the millions of voters struggling to make ends meet.
Miliband’s speech clearly rattled the Tories and their friends in the press. After years of dismissing him as a weak, dithering nerd, the Conservative-supporting media accused Miliband of possessing a Stalinist ambition to return to “1970s-style socialism” with policies that “pose a serious risk freedom.”
Crossing the boundary of decency, three days after his conference speech, the Daily Mail published a profile of Miliband’s late father Ralph Miliband, describing the Marxist professor, who served in the British Navy in World War II, as “The man who hated Britain.” Almost universally condemned by politicians of all parties, a photograph of Miliband senior’s gravestone in the Mail online ran with the tasteless caption “grave socialist.” Although he didn’t choose this fight, Miliband’s powerful defense of his father’s reputation and retaliation against the Daily Mail has increased his public standing.
Thanks to the row over his father’s Marxist convictions, Miliband rather than Cameron dominated the Conservative Party conference. In an underwhelming conference speech that made no new proposals, Cameron mentioned Miliband’s policies as often as his own. Despite dismissing Labour’s plans as opportunistic and/or unworkable, by devoting so much time in his own speech to rebutting Miliband’s conference address of the week before, Cameron acknowledged the Labour leader as a serious opponent.
Cameron’s conference speech was also noteworthy for his rhetorical tack to the right. Marriage tax allowances, deportation of foreign criminals without appeal, U.S.-style workfare for the unemployed — Cameron’s pledges were as reminiscent of the 1980s as the Maggie memorabilia on sale outside the conference hall.
But the prime minister’s instinctively liberal conservatism was never shared by most in his party. And with the UK Independence Party surging in the opinion polls, Cameron must defend his right flank or lose voters and activists to the anti-Europe party in key Tory marginals at the general election, which is now less than 20 months away. But in pandering to the right, Cameron risks surrendering the center ground on which British elections are fought and won.
The prime minister’s lack of understanding of his own party was tragically and embarrassingly demonstrated by the defeat of his Parliament motion on Syria in late August — a defeat inflicted by his own backbenchers. Cameron asked the Commons to back a motion condemning the Syrian government for using chemical weapons on Aug. 21 and to give support, in principle, to a future, as yet undefined military attack on the Assad regime.
But the legacy of anger and suspicion bequeathed by Britain’s involvement in Iraq undermined public and political support for military action against Assad. After an emotional parliamentary debate, Cameron’s motion was defeated by 285 to 272 votes, with 30 Tory members of Parliament rebelling against the government. Although Cameron deserves credit for standing by his pro-intervention principles, the defeat was an embarrassment and one that he and his Whips Office should have anticipated.
With the Commons having returned last week for its last full session before the next general election, the prime minister faces considerable obstacles to victory.
The electoral system is against the Conservatives, whose voters are concentrated in certain pockets of the country. Biases in constituency boundaries mean Labour needs only a one percent lead in the national vote to win in 2015. To achieve a majority, the Conservatives require a seven percent lead.
But all is not lost for David Cameron. He remains the most popular of the three national party leaders and has the backing of the majority of the British press. To prevent defeat in the general election, Cameron must avoid a repeat of the strategic blunders made over the summer. To win, he must not concede the ideological center ground to Labour, but follow his instincts and offer a manifesto combining market liberalism with social responsibility.
If the heated clash between Cameron and Miliband at last Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time is any indication, the prime minister won’t go down without a fight.
Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan Campus.