09.02.11

David Cameron’s Holiday Boost

The British prime minister was supposed to be on vacation last month, but first the riots and then Libya sent him back to work. Still, he did get a much-needed bump in the polls, William Underhill reports.

Pity the poor Cameron family. The received wisdom suggests that August should be a quiet month in British politics. Not so for David Cameron this year. Twice in the space of a few weeks, the prime minister was summoned away from wife and children to take charge back in Downing Street.

First, the worst rioting in decades brought him home from Tuscany; then the assault on Tripoli meant quitting the beaches of England’s southwest. That’s tough on a leader badly in need of a break after a pasting from the press over his suspiciously close ties to the Murdoch media empire revealed by the phone-hacking scandal.

But the broken holiday has useful consolations. Cameron’s approval ratings now stand at around 40 percent; much the same as before the summer’s traumas. Better still, the Conservatives are slowly regaining some of the ground lost to Labour in recent months. The latest YouGov polls suggest that the party is trailing by just five points at 37 percent.

Some explanations are easy enough. The riots allowed Cameron to show off the kind of calm and competence that the public expects of a leader at a moment of crisis. And the approach of total victory in Libya has converted many of the skeptics, with support for Britain’s involvement in the campaign–now 43 percent–rising with every advance.

No less important, the summer’s troubles have provided useful political distraction from other pressing national woes. The latest growth figures show a British economy that’s more or less flat-lining. Unemployment and inflation are both rising while manufacturing output–seen as crucial to recovery–fell sharply last month. 

That’s bad for the Conservatives, with the polls indicating that they are still seen as the party of the rich out of sympathy with the poor or the squeezed middle classes. Voters accept the need for austerity measures if Britain is to escape the fate of other European nations, but the mood is grim. “You need another story if you want to keep them happy,” says Neil O’Brien of the Conservative think tank Policy Exchange.

The riots provide just such a story. Cameron, long accused of lacking a distinctive cause, now has a clear purpose and goal: repairing what he has called “Broken Britain.”

And he can’t be accused of any sudden conversion. For Cameron, the issue of how to tackle the problems of Britain’s poor and alienated youth is familiar ground. His concern for “Broken Britain” was a recurring theme in his attempts to give the Conservative Party a more caring image in the run-up to last year’s elections.

Politically, it’s an issue that demands all Cameron’s PR deftness. On the one hand, he knows that the public takes a tougher line than both main parties when it comes to questions of law and order. He knows too that plenty of right-wing Tory MPs–their numbers strengthened at the election–are still suspicious of their leader’s attempts to edge the party onto the center ground of politics.

On the other, he can’t disown the talk of compassionate conservatism that he’s deployed in the past, and Labour yearns for a slip-up that will allow him to be portrayed as an old-style Conservative more interested in punishment than seeking to understand the causes behind the riots.

Language is crucial. Whatever their reaction to the riots, the public doesn’t like the harsh rhetoric of retribution. “Much of it is tonal,” says Neil O’Brien. “If you get it wrong, it sounds like you’re off the golf course.”

So far, Cameron has managed to sidestep the pitfalls, moderating his language to match the voters’ cooling temper. The initial talk of the looters’ “sheer criminality” and his apparent endorsement of harsh sentences have given way to a more nuanced stance. In a BBC interview Friday, he was advocating “tough love” as well as tough justice.

Cameron, long accused of lacking a distinctive cause, now has a clear purpose and goal: repairing what he has called ‘Broken Britain.’

Not that Cameron can risk complacency. Next month he must address his party’s annual conference in Manchester, always a testing experience for a Conservative leader, and he’ll need policies to match his words. One recent survey showed a clear majority believed that neither party was capable of mending “Broken Britain.”

And if Cameron’s ratings have yet to slump, nor have they markedly improved since he took power. Voters may be awaiting results before they come to a firm conclusion on his premiership, says Rick Nye of pollsters Populus. “You have seen the hacking, the riots, and Libya, but they are not really game-changers when it comes to their fundamental assessment.” 

Even if the streets of London and Tripoli stay calm, for Cameron the coming months will be no holiday.