David Cameron Eclipsed? Party horsemen ride abreast in Tory Home Poll of Polls…

Hmmm, those aggregate figures must be skewed because of the amount of polling that’s been done since Nick Clegg’s big night out… For me the best analysis emerging from Tory quarters on where this leaves David Cameron is from Matthew D’Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph:

Cameron’s specific difficulty last week was not so much that he under-performed, but that Clegg stole his act. It was Clegg, not Cameron, who came across as the insurgent, promising the viewers a fresh start after a period of mouldy decline and moral decay. It was Clegg, not Cameron, who communicated a sense of mission – however vague – and what Obama in his campaign (quoting Martin Luther King) called “the fierce urgency of now”.

When Cameron was elected leader of his party in December 2005, it was this spirit that he claimed to embody. He urged all Conservatives to “be the change”, to translate youthful dynamism into political transformation, first of the Tory party, and then of the country. By the time Clegg took the helm of the Lib Dems two years later, it was easy to dismiss him as Cameron Lite. Yet, for 90 minutes on Thursday, it was Clegg who came across as the real thing, the man with the momentum.

And here’s the biting nub of the problem:

Cameron’s specific difficulty last week was not so much that he under-performed, but that Clegg stole his act. It was Clegg, not Cameron, who came across as the insurgent, promising the viewers a fresh start after a period of mouldy decline and moral decay. It was Clegg, not Cameron, who communicated a sense of mission – however vague – and what Obama in his campaign (quoting Martin Luther King) called “the fierce urgency of now”.

When Cameron was elected leader of his party in December 2005, it was this spirit that he claimed to embody. He urged all Conservatives to “be the change”, to translate youthful dynamism into political transformation, first of the Tory party, and then of the country. By the time Clegg took the helm of the Lib Dems two years later, it was easy to dismiss him as Cameron Lite. Yet, for 90 minutes on Thursday, it was Clegg who came across as the real thing, the man with the momentum.

Matt thinks Cameron will learn from this and rally. And I have no doubt that’s true. But I suspect the source of the problem lies further back in the nature of the two year campaign the Tories have been running, mostly against Brown. Like the French guns on the line, they may find they were too fixed in one direction. And now Clegg (and to a lesser extent an exultant Labour party) are spilling round the outside of those fixed defences.

The other problem was articulated on this thread by reader Sammy Morse, lies with the media strategy itself:

The Tories have abandoned carefully a media grid which will have been carefully thought out months ago, and more critically, have stopped pushing their key narrative so they can pump out squeeze lines on the LibDems.

Not only have some of these been delivered in a way that will do some damage to the Tories (e.g. Cameron’s comments in Gloucester yesterday which implied the Tories were as bad as any other politicians and couldn’t be trusted to put the country’s interests first in the event of a hung parliament), but it keeps the lines they need to be getting into the media off the screens and buried at the back of the papers.

Finally, the messages themselves are designed around squeezing a LibDem party trailing in third, but one challenging you for first place.

There is also the problem that the original messages designed to woo the Lib Dem audience have been undermined by some pretty strong anti immigration material filtered into the Ashcroft funded marginal campaigns in the last few weeks. This, I suspect, is having a two fold effect: falsifying the original ‘new liberal Tory’ messaging; and tempting people to look at the candidate formerly known as ‘Cameron lite’ as the genuine article.

And then, of course, Cameron’s not new any more. Neither is Clegg of course, but the media obsession – to the level of comparing the choice of clothes and holiday destination – with the Brown Cameron stand off, means he feels new to the voting public. So how does Cameron legitimately present the change message he’s been pushing for much of his time at the head of the Conservatives?

Finally, back in 1979 Margaret Thatcher came up with an answer to a question everyone was asking: how do you solve two decades of troubled labour relations? Many people did not like her answer and it plunged the country into several years of intense if low level civil strife. But, crucially, it addressed the problem and she was handsomely rewarded at the polls for it.

I suspect that this lack of defined purpose explains some of Cameron’s fragility in the polls. It is not clear what overwhelming problem his project is the best answer to. On many of the issues the Tories have better policy initiatives than their opponents; not least in education. But it is the absence of ‘a big idea’ that’s forcing him to speak in lists of what he can do rather than what he will represent, which will make it difficult to stem the flow from the dyke.

In the absence of a consistently identifiable Tory ‘liberal’, voters may be more inclined to vote for the genuine article.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty