Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been concentrating perhaps more than usual on the headline voting intentions figure. Mostly that’s because the big issue has become whether Labour’s lead is solid enough to tempt Gordon Brown into an election, but I’m also becoming convinced that a lot of other questions, things like the best party on issues and leaders approval ratings, aren’t particularly independent of the main voting intention questions.

Looking at the details of the YouGov poll from the weekend David Cameron’s approval ratings are now way down, the proportion of people who think he has improved the Conservatives’ chance of winning the next election is also way down at 25% (not surprising given the polls) but I suspect these are largely symptoms of the Tory malaise, not causes.

What about the underlying perceptions of the Conservative party? Have they acquired new freshness and balance? 31% say yes, 46% say no. Looking at the cross breaks though there are a fair old proportion (31%) of – presumably cheesed off – Tory supporters who say he hasn’t, but there are also significant proportions of opposition supporters who say he has. 22% of Labour supporters think he has yet this clearly isn’t enough for them to switch to the Tories.

There is a similiar pattern when YouGov asked whether the Conservatives reflect the values of British people. Only 26% agree, 45% disagree, but a fair old chunk of those disagreeing are Conservative supporters while there is a significant proportion of Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters who think the Tories do better reflect British values these days…yet still don’t support them.

Amongst the statements offered there are three possible explanations for Tory unpopularity that meet with overwhelming agreement amongst non-Conservative voters – firstly, that it’s hard to know if there is any substance behind what David Cameron says, secondly that Cameron seems like a lightweight compared to Brown, and thirdly that it’s hard to know what the Conservative party stands for these days.

Asked what the reasons might be for the Conservative lack of progress, something of the same picture emerges. 64% of people think that one of the reasons the Conservatives aren’t doing better is that it’s hard to know what they’d actually do. On policy questions the most popular risens given by non-Conservative supporters for why the Tories are doing badly is that they can’t yet trust the Conservatives on schools and hospitals and they don’t have credible policies (in contrast, most Conservative supporters think the problem is they aren’t attacking the government enough on waste).

I suspect that these are the problems that actually are facing the Conservatives at the moment – firstly, people prefer Gordon Brown to David Cameron. All the polls show he is seen as more of a heavyweight, looks stronger and he is certainly more trusted in a crisis and seen as a better Prime Minister. Secondly, the Conservatives don’t seem to have any policies and no one knows what they will do.

At this point in time there is not much the Conservatives can do about making David Cameron seem more heavyweight in comparison to Brown. One of them is a heavy-set man in his fifties of stern demeanour who has been at the top of government for a decade, the other is inexperienced, polished, young looking man who used to do the PR for Carlton TV. We know the strengths and weaknesses in the public perceptions of the two men, and no amount of spin is going to make Cameron look more heavyweight than Brown. For the moment the Conservatives need to do all they can to stop an election being seen as a Brown vs Cameron choice.

With the other problem the Conservatives can at least do something – if the problem is not having credible policies and not presenting a compelling picture of what a Conservative government would offer, the conference is their chance (possibly their last chance before an election) to do it – so far it looks as if they do indeed intend to use their conference to bring forward solid policy announcements and no doubt there will be polls next weekend to show if it has had any effect.

What needs to be remembered however is that there’s no silver bullet. Even if the Conservatives do come up with coherent policies that the public notice and remember – no easy task in itself – what really counts is how well Gordon Brown and Labour do, there is no course of action that the Conservatives can take that will automatically deliver victory or even a recovery. I remain a firm believer that governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them (though opposition are perfectly capable of losing them).

31 Responses to “Why are the Conservatives doing badly?”

  1. I agree with much of what Anthony says but think that Cameron can speedily improve his poll ratings
    by demonstating that when his party is under severe pressure – threat of early Gen.Election, well behind in the polls – he demonstates his leadership skills.

  2. Leadership skills and a great speech will go some way, but
    Cameron enjoyed a bounce in the Brown/Cameron YouGov polls from Dec 05 until June this year, a good eighteen months of bouyancy. It’s not surprising therefore that Brown is still enjoying his. I agree that elections are lost rather than won – The Labour Party certainly lost in 1992, when they were divided between old Labour, and New Labour. I don’t believe the Conservatives lost in 1997 – the economy was improving, but the “time for change” message, and “sleaze” label were applied so convincingly by a united Labour party and its “rapid rebuttal” unit that Labour I feel did actually win. In 2005, Howard’s campaign set pieces tripped him up, and the Tories were seen as the Nasty Party, though Blair could easily have lost it over Iraq and dis-unity.
    Now that Blair is gone, the Labour party seems to be united, without the need for an obvious head-lock on dissenters, whereas the Tories are seen as tied in knots over the New Conservative versus Old Conservative divide. The first task is to unite, the second is to campaign against Labour’s faults. It’s too early to say “time fopr change”, as no-one’s bored yet, and the “s” word equivalent “spin” just doesn’t provoke the same disgust as “sleaze” The Waste of Tax is the issue, and (surprisingly) the personality fight is on the back-burner for Cameron for now.

  3. I never thought “spin” would help the Tories, as all parties use spin, as does the media, as do we all.

  4. John T: I would just say (again) that the longish Conservative bounce took place during the troubled time when Blair was on the way out, Brown was an unknown quantity (as potential PM), and the Labour party looked disunited and demoralised.
    Having got through that rough water, the by now almost traditional Labour lead has reasserted itself. (Just look back at the poll figures since the mid 90s).
    Unless there is a real crisis that the government is seen to bungle badly, it will remain very difficult for the Conservatives to become the “natural party of government” again – at least until after a 4th Labour term, when “time for a change” may become an unstoppable idea.

  5. Brown has done nothing except changed all the Ministers (creating chaos in government BTW), had a few stunts, kept well away when there was a real crisis and had a mind-numbingly boring “image” conference. When he is tested in debate (esp if Parliament returns) his image, which is starting to fray already, will probably return to the Clunking Fist which everyone so disliked. It will also be very difficult for him unless he concedes a Euro Referendum. Cameron was invisible during the Brown honeymoon. And Brown will look v weak if, as seems probable, he bottles out of a snap Election. Let’s see what the Nov polls show.

  6. “H” – I agree with the “unknown quantity” bit of your analysis – he has now been tried and tested (albeit in minor crises), and found to have the mettle to deal with them. In contrast Cameron’s bounce got soggy when he went to Rwanda, and I don’t think he’ll recover until at least the next crisis.
    I think from the YouGov poll questions the electorate is quite receptive to anyone who says “more or less the same, getting a bit fairer”, slow growth and soft landings, rather than boom and then fingers crossed we don’t get caught in the bust/let the fittest flourish. conservative with a very small “c”, almost.

  7. just to qualify that last bit, there’s nothing extreme in the answers – the voters seem to like stability, predictability, caution, reason, but also seem to be prepared to hear Cameron out – there’s no sense of revulsion

  8. “T”: I think what you are saying is that none of us any longer expect politicians to bring about “The New Jerusalem” in 5 years. The electorate is more cynical (or realistic), and prepared to settle for things going gradually in the right direction. (Perhaps that should be moderately centre-left direction). Labour has provided this for ten years and all the talk e.g. about “broken society” is seen as spin – and healthy doubt about the ability of the Conservatives to do better. I think we have settled into a long period of centre-left government. The Tories only hope is not sudden change in opinion or gimmics but (as Anthony said) that Labour will eventually lose an election – either through real incompetence (which they haven’t yet shown) or because they have been there too long (say, in 2012).

  9. I think the media has a lot to do with it – it does seem to have been very pro-Brown and anti-Cameron on the TV and newspapers alike.

  10. Andy,

    I’m sure voters are more than capable of making their own minds up about David Cameron. Cameron should count his blessings, he’s had it cushy in the press compared to Neil Kinnock.

  11. It’s not that the Tories are doing badly, it’s that they just aren’t doing as well as labor at this current moment in time, they are yet to make any big mistakes. The Tories are doing just fine, just not as fine Labour.

  12. second comment to make up for my typo and to say that, if you hadn’t noticed, the majority of newspapers and political shows are conservative.

  13. I don’t think Cameron should even try to seem more heavyweight than Brown. It’s simply impossible for the reasons of their relative ages, appeareances, voices, and experience in government posts. Cameron cannot alter any of those.

    However, Cameron is far stonger pn the softer skills than Brown- he is more humourous, chaming, and likeable than Brown. He radiates optimism and newness, whereas Brown has something of a dark air of sadness. Even in this Tory Malaisse, if you rmemeber the Newsnight focus group a week ago, far more people saw Cameron as representing ‘change’ and ‘the future’. I believe those are fairly formiddible weapons if used correctly.

    Although the polls may be favourabkle to Brown now I think him and Cameron are like chalk and cheese with each being strong where the other is weak. I strongly believe these figures will begin to move in Cameron’s favour sooner rather than later. A few good headlines will change everything, the public are fickle and impressionable.

    Michael Portillo today on the Condference programme observed that the Media seem to want a Conservativ recovery, and to see a contest. That is certainly interesting in itself. I think the Tories had a good day today at Conference in PR terms, but I think it is Cameron’s speech that will matter a lot. I think it will get a great deal of press coverage as I think the media want to see Cameron fight back rather than put the boot in for Brown.

  14. I think that people just don’t want the Tories in Government again 2005 proved that! Such a tide of wanting to punish Labour and only a small rise in the Toires vote share.

    The Tories to some degree still have the arrogance that kicked them out in 1997! They ought to have split at some point (like Labour 1981). Right, centre/centre right!

  15. Yes, John H, I agree and I don’t think there’s much difference between one-nation conservatism and New Labour – they used to joke that the Tory party was led by a socialist (Major), and the Labour party by a Thatcherite (Blair). Cameron needs to steer his party (little nudges on the wheel, not jerks)towards the centre-left and converge with public opinion. Then he can begin to nudge us to a centre-right position. From where he can develop centre-right ethos within expensive public services, and even find room for raising tax thresholds. Blair provoked anger from both left and right, maybe it’s time for that to subside and for a little more clarity to define the differences. We’re certainly not a one-party nation, and there’ no reason for the Conservative party to be demoralised.

  16. Anthony – Do you not think that the results above will cause major problems for the conservative vote at the election.If the “freshness,balance and reflect British values” is not working too well,and at best only working for the voters who wouldn’t vote for him anyway,this would mean he would find it hard to get his core vote out,who for one reason or another are turning against him.They are more likely to say they will vote Conservative despite him,rather than because of him.Which leads to the question,how soft is the Conservative vote if the core isn’t particularly endeared to it’s leader?

  17. Breaking News from the BBC, Brown is apparently considering cutting Uk troops in Iraq from 5,000 to 3,000 and anouncingit toParliament when it returns.

    As Anthony predicted Labour is going to do all it can to upstage the Tories this week, and announcing pulling troops out of Iraq would be a very good way to do it.

    Don’t be surprised if we see moves on stamp duty and or inheritance tax in the next week or to either. Why vote Tory when Labour gives you Tory might well be all brown needs to do to stay ahead in England.

    I am not sure it will work so well up here though.


  18. Anthony is entirely right when he says that Governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them.

    There seems to be an inbuilt conservatism (with a small ‘c’) in the British people that resists change unless circumstances seem definitely to demand it. They would rather stick with the Government they know, so long as it seems to be managing reasonably well, than opt for the unknown.

    Of course, when a government seems tired, incompetent, divided and sleaze-ridden, and the leader is manfestly weak, then the demand for change will swell, and if the opposition then seems to be acting like a government-in-waiting, then their chance will come. This is what happened big-style in 1997.

    With one exception this has been the pattern of British politics since 1945. The exception of course was in 1970 when Harold Wilson misjudged things and Ted Heath snook in. The pollsters all got it madly wrong at that one, and I have never yet heard a convincing explanation as to why it happened as it did, as all the signs looked good for Wilson.

    Nevertheless the general pattern still holds good – Governments need to lose before an opposition can win.

  19. As I write, BBC Freeview are, by coincidence, showing some clips of the 1970 result.
    For the Tories to achieve near that in October or November 2007 would be a tall order,
    but I do suspect the national share of the vote is in reality pretty close at the moment.

    I think there is a great deal of complacency on the part of some aspects of the media.

  20. I think the Tories will get a pretty positive spin in the press Tomorrow. Except in the Mirror, that is. It said that David Cameron has ‘the political nous of a gnat’ and ‘my goldfish’ had a better chance of defeating Gordon Brown in a general election. I find the Mirror rather hilarious in the over-tghe-topness of its political bias. I think it would actually achieve it’s aim of undermining the Conservtaives better if it treated them as something slightly more sensible than various low level insectoid/ acquatic organisms.

  21. The Tories simply cannot recover at this point and pull off a “1970” for several reasons, including:
    1) the public are more than willing to give Brown a chance, and seem in no mood to deprive him of his premiership after he has waited so long. Most have at some point and for differing reasons urged him to seek a mandate so can hardly complain when he does..
    2) in the increasingly presidential and less tribal nature of elections, Brown is a long, long way ahead of Cameron on a whole range of indicators.
    3) voters are not yet crossing from Labour to the Conservatives, there is some drift the other way but Labour’s poll lead seems almost entirely down to the left of centre vote returning after Blair/Iraq. They may have voted Lib Dem/Green/Respect but most would never contemplate voting Tory.
    4) polling is far more sophisticated than in 1970, and the economic climate more stable.

  22. Lukw,

    Callaghan had likeability, bags of it. He could burst into song he could. Thatcher more politically respected than she was ever personally liked. There were those who loved her and those who hated her with a passion. And so it remains.

    I think Cameron’s likeability has taken a bit of blow. Can’t exactly have gone down well his remarks about high levels of personal debt. Reaction: Who is he to tell us what we should and shouldn’t borrow? I dare some people would have found his ‘anarchy’ comments in the wake of the Rhys Jones killing rather crass too.


    Do you think Cameron broadly fits in with ‘One-Nation’ Conservatism? I’m not sure because I’m not warming to him at all.


    I’m minded to agree with you there.

    I do expect the Conservatives to get a conference boost in the polls.

  23. Valid point, Cllr Cairns, but there are real differencces emerging between the Tories and Labour. Brown is in the position to out-manoeuvre Cameron on policy (the upstaging is happening in Iraq right now). The £1m threshold for inheritance tax is “clear blue water” in that it helps every estate with net assets between £300k and £1m, but no-one below that, and keeps ancestral semi’s “in the family”. How would Brown spend £3.1 bn?…

    Dave Hawk – I think Cameron is facing his party at the moment, and preparing for life after losing the election, if it happens. People didn’t exactly warm to Brown for a long time. The tory conference seems to approve/ They might miss Haig’s wit, but the last thing Cameron needs is a baseball cap.

  24. I belive there is a possiblity (not a probability mind) that a lot of Labour people are going to end up with a lot of egg on their face. I simply do not buy the popular line ‘the Conservatives are doomed no matter what’ tune which is resonating from arrogant Lablour trumpets. Need I remind you Brown’s Bounce has come, gone (The polls around the killing of Rhys Jones), and come back again in the polls. There is no logical or empirical reason to assume that now it will last and stay. You guys are counting your chickens far, far too soon.

  25. The Tories appear to be giving a more traditional image at this conference. Would anyone else think that perhaps the petrol tax rise hasn’t helped Labour, especially timing it for the day the opposition announced they would cut taxes? Also if the recent very steep rises in milk / bread will help? I remember this was Heath’s forte in 1970 – and Thatcher’s famous stunt involved groceries.
    PS I used to go out with someone who worked for Callaghan and he had the reputation of being a bit of a bully to subordinates.

  26. People vote for the party, and leader, they feel best represents their interests. That’s why pollsters ask questions to do with “issues of most importance in deciding”
    Why should a tax rebate of £280000 for everyone whose estate is worth over £1m, tapering down to a rebate of zero for those worth less than £300k be proposed by a party that wants to represent most people’s interests?
    Cameron will ditch that proposal immediately after the next election and his party will let him guide them to the centre. I hope.

  27. The idea that the situation is now fixed as it is now in the polls for perpetuity is madness. Firstly Labour have had a bounce due to their Conference and as yet there have been no polls following the Tory one. There will almost certainly be a change following it of course.

    However besides that, there has been as yet no “politics as normal” since Brown became PM. This Conference season has been held in abnormal election fever, through the Summer Parliament was in recess. If no autumn election is held then next week Parliament will resume and for the first time in what seems like a long time then politics as normal will begin at last. How Brown will cope as PM then, or how Cameron will cope as Opposition leader to PM Brown then is as yet *completely untested*.

    It takes arrogance to say in these unusual, volatile circumstances that there can be no change from now.

  28. Are they doing so badly or does it reflect a new reality with Labour holding the centre ground?

  29. Or is it more that the Nationalists are doing so well?

  30. The inheritance tax issue as an area to define ‘clear blue water’ is a curious choice. It is difficult to see that many people would cross from Labour to the Tories as a result, so I suspect that it had more to do with shoring up support within the party. As it would require £3 billion a year to implement the change this seems to limit the Tory party’s options on Tax and Spend elsewhere for relatively little political gain.

  31. Surely I cant be the only one absolutely bursting for the post Tory conference opinion polls.

    The assumptions I think are that any lead over 5% would see GB go to the polls, and anything less would see him hang on.

    What would be interesting would be if the polls stayed as they were (broadly speaking a Lab lead of 6 or 7% but GB then decided not to go anyway.

    From his point of view it would be much easier to carry off the old ‘an election would not be in the national interest thing’ if he was clearly in the lead.

    If the Tories can revive their fortunes to the extent that they force his hand, it will be a big morale boost for them.

    I personally believe a November poll will be a mistake. I think the public will resent being asked to go to the polls in the dark and will resent all the late night knocks on the door, I believe GB refusing the oppostunity to go when everyone knows he will win will just add to his popularity.

    Whilst I believe he should wait, I think he will go,unless the Tories have really clawed some ground back this week.

    Either way it has been fascinating seeing the parties jockeying for position.