Saturday, September 30, 2006

Opinion Poll blip or stumble?

It would appear that the Conservative lead has vanished in yesterday's polling. Dizzy highlights that this is likely to have a lot to do with a conference boost for the Labour Party. Certainly this would seem to explain why the Liberal Democrats are suffering more than we are; this would not be the case if the problem were really with the Cameron revolution.

However, some of the detail in the Telegraph's coverage of the poll does hint at a growing problem with a lack of definition in the new Conservative brand. I tend to ignore such ideas when they come from Menzies Campbell but when it is the Economist (premium content I'm afraid) arguing that Cameron is suffering from appearing policy-lite they need to be listened to.

The first thing to remember is that Cameron is actually very far from policy-lite. The reason that the Conservative Party is currently short policies is that a conscious choice was made to make the process of policy formation a slow one and take time about getting the ideas right. This was always going to mean a period in which we had little to show the electorate but has a reward in better plans for government than could have been arrived at by Cameron and Osborne sitting in an Islington restaurant before the leadership election. To decide on policy more quickly would be the genuinely policy-lite approach.

However, this involves very considerable risk. One of the political lessons that Cameron appears to have absorbed is that telling voters they were wrong is something they often respond poorly to; this is one reason why the message of change has been emphasised in his leadership. This is relevant to this situation because voters are rapidly gaining the impression, whether they are right or wrong, that Cameron is about style before substance and they will not easily change their mind. This will make such a reputation a hard impression to shift once the commissions report and it is more obviously untrue.

Before the local elections earlier this year I described the risk that a slow policy formation process implied if it cost us quick electoral results and left Cameron branded as a loser. That time Cameron's gamble paid off as the electoral results turned out well. Could it be that we are now seeing the same scenario unfold but with Cameron as good natured but vacuous instead of good natured but a loser?

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