The parallels between the political situation now and 13 years ago (the last time Britain went into Christmas under a Tory government) are uncanny. Back in the final days of 1996 - just as today - Britain had in John Major an unpopular prime minister in charge of a tired, sleazy and incompetent government. Also, back then - just as today - an exciting opposition leader in his early 40s was offering voters a radical alternative. Yet there is one glaring difference. Tony Blair's New Labour was regularly scoring around 55 per cent in the opinion polls and enjoyed a sustained 30 per cent over John Major's Tory government. The subsequent General Election result was a foregone conclusion. Today, David Cameron has the support of just 40 per cent of voters in opinion polls with a lead over Labour of only 10 per cent. This is barely enough to command a Commons majority, let alone repeat the landslide victory secured by Tony Blair in the general election in May 1997. This failure to gain a consistently strong bedrock of support across all sections of the country is deeply troubling for David Cameron and is causing some unease and soul-searching in his inner team.
Faced with a broken government, limping pathetically towards next spring's general election at a time of grave economic crisis, the Opposition ought to be miles ahead in the polls. Cameron's failure to secure an unassailable lead over Labour is down to the weakness of his frontbench team; but the fact that it is not has led to increasingly disgruntled mutterings among Tory backbenchers, many of whom, privately, have never really taken to Cameron. If the Tory opinion poll lead falls much further, Cameron might face a major crisis of confidence. So the most important question in British politics this Christmas is this: why is David Cameron not doing a lot better? One answer lies in the character of his opponent, Gordon Brown. Although the Prime Minister is a spectacularly poor premier, he has an admirable inner resilience. Furthermore, Brown seems to have a remarkable ability to shine when he attends international summit meetings. For instance, he played a powerful role in bringing warring parties together at the Copenhagen conference yesterday. He also proved a doughty negotiator at the G8 meeting of world leaders in London last year. A second, more pressing, reason for Cameron's failure to secure an unassailable lead over Labour is down to the weakness of his frontbench team.
Back in 1996, Tony Blair led a very powerful campaigning organisation. Orchestrated by Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, it specialised in the vicious and unpleasant tactic of personal attacks on its enemies. Huge resources were employed in trying to annihilate John Major and his government. Such barbarous and unscrupulous politics is alien to David Cameron's nature and it is to his credit that he has not sought to emulate New Labour's unsavoury tactics. As a result, however, Cameron has repeatedly failed to take advantage of Gordon Brown's unpopularity. Cameron has also made one key error of judgment. Until six months ago, the Tories possessed one formidable and courageous attack dog in the shape of his frontbench spokesman Chris Grayling. But Cameron foolishly promoted him to be Shadow Home Secretary. Since then, Grayling has struggled to make an impact in his new brief, while the Tories have lost the services of their only seasoned rottweiler when it comes to attacks on Labour. But Cameron's biggest problem is his failure to resonate with ordinary voters in the same way that Blair did 13 years ago.
For a period, Blair seemed to encapsulate all the hopes and frustrations of an entire generation. Yet David Cameron has singularly failed to do the same. His inability to connect with wide cross-sections of Britain is, however, not a matter of social class as some commentators claim. Blair, of course, was also the product of an elite education-Fettes public school, Oxford University and the Bar) and yet found it easy to win over the public. Cameron's biggest problem is his failure to resonate with ordinary voters in the same way that Blair did 13 years ago To understand why one man has succeeded while the other hasn't, it is essential to understand the contrasting styles of these two politicians. As we all know, Tony Blair was a brilliant front man. He would never say or do anything without the approval of his two superlatively talented, if utterly unprincipled, spin doctors, Mandelson and Campbell. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that these two men dominated him both intellectually and morally, especially during his time in opposition. By contrast, David Cameron is very much his own man. Like Blair, he employs two skilled public relations experts in Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. But they report to Cameron. With Blair, however, it was often the other way around - he did what he was told by the ruthless Mandelson and Campbell. Their advice was perfect for a party in opposition wanting to end 17 years of Tory government.
Like most political PR men, they were obsessed with the dark arts of spinning - involving style and image over substance and delivery - rather than the more important matters of how to run the country properly. And, as I say, they sacrificed all principles in order to present a desirable image of their leader. It is certainly true that Cameron at first betrayed his PR man past with such dubious stunts as being photographed with huskies on a Norwegian glacier and cycling to work with his chauffeured car carrying his shoes and papers following him. But as time has gone on, he has demonstrated he has strong principles. He knows that he must decide what his priorities would be in government and he has also slowly come to realise that an obsession with image won't wash with the public. Take, for example, his recent very unpopular decision to recant on his pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. In public relations terms this U-turn was a kamikaze move. It badly damaged Cameron's reputation for integrity and lost many friends on the Tory right. Principally, it opened him up to deadly charge of betrayal of his principles. But the Tory leader went back on his word because he believed that if he becomes prime minister it would be quite impractical to reopen talks on the Lisbon Treaty once it had been ratified by all the other EU member states. And he realised that it would have been profoundly dishonest to pretend that he would still hold a referendum when its result would have no effect. So, at considerable political cost and to the despair of some of his advisers, Cameron ruled out a referendum. A similar attitude of realism came into play with regard Tory economic policy.
Twelve months ago, Cameron and his Shadow Chancellor George Osborne took the controversial decision to announce plans for very sharp public spending cuts. Nothing could have been more calculated to cost them votes and easy popularity. (Although, in a fascinating interview with Tim Shipman in today's Mail, Cameron has sought to empathise the positive side of his tough-minded economic policies, he still remains steadfast to the unpopular decisions that he would have to make in government.) There is, of course, a big risk to this strategy. By election day in 1997, the vast majority of voters believed Blair shared their views and aspirations. No wonder New Labour won by a landslide. It won't be like that with David Cameron. He's already signalled to the over-mighty public service unions that they'll have a tremendous battle on their hands with a Tory government determined to slash public spending and quickly reduce the nation's obscene levels of debt. David Cameron has, I believe, learned from the mistakes Tony Blair made in opposition. By the time Blair secured power, he had made so many pledges to so many different groups to secure their votes that he was powerless to effect the kind of changes he wanted in government. Cameron, by contrast, has made a mental trade-off - and is prepared to alienate sections of society (and risk a smaller Commons majority) if it means that he'll have much greater freedom to make the really difficult and unpopular decisions that he'll need to make after the election. As Tory leader Margaret Thatcher said two decades ago: 'It's only on the basis of truth that power should be won - or indeed can be worth winning.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.