The online petition, which has been signed by more than 40,000 Britons, is straightforward: “We the undersigned petition the prime minister to resign.” And where do you go to sign this e-petition? Number10.gov.uk —“The Official Site of the Prime Minister’s Office.” It would be hard to find a clearer sign of the sad state of affairs at Downing Street in what now seem destined to be Gordon Brown’s final months in office. It’s as if the insurgents are coming over the walls.
Brown has just gone through what even his close allies acknowledge is the worst week of his premiership. On Wednesday, he lost a key vote in the House of Commons, thanks to defecting MPs from his own Labour Party. The next day, the PM was forced to retreat on another issue to avert another humiliating bashing. The previous week was in some ways even more damaging. Brown attracted widespread ridicule for a cringe-making political mini-speech on YouTube. Then a day later, his chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, unveiled a recession-driven budget that was poorly received and, for many, an admission of Labour missteps and overspending since it came to power in 1997.
As a former public-relations executive, Cameron knew how to use language to shape his image and reshape his party’s. The Tories were temporarily rebranded on their Web site as “Cameron's Conservatives,” and Cameron spoke often and at length about a responsibility to protect the environment, “social justice,” and “global poverty.”
Brown, 58, has 13 months before he has to call a general election, and the consensus opinion in London political circles is that, because Labour is running 20 or so percentage points behind the Conservatives in the polls, he will wait as long as he can. But the public, the politicians, and the pundits are way ahead of him: As if counting on Labour’s defeat, all eyes are now on David Cameron, the 42-year-old leader of the Tories.
That’s the good news for Cameron. The bad news is that he’s being judged altogether differently today than he was even a few months ago. This is especially true because, as the new budget made clear, Britain is entering a period of negative and then slow growth, fast-rising unemployment and perhaps some attendant social unrest, and rising public debt accompanied by falling spending.
It’s bad news because despite Cameron’s personal appeal, he hasn’t managed to define what a Conservative government would do in office or what he would be like as leader of his country as opposed to leader of his party. In polls, Cameron often scores higher on personal qualities than on leadership qualities. Accused of placing style over substance, Cameron and his inner circle have responded by producing two dozen policy papers on issues from education to energy.
Still, the shape of a Tory platform for government remains frustratingly vague. For example, the 37-page energy policy, as cleverly named as it is (“Power to the People”), mentions the word “nuclear” once—and then only to specify nuclear power’s current share of electricity generation, not to signal the Tories’ position on nuclear. As a member of Cameron’s shadow cabinet told the commentator Andrew Rawnsley recently, “If you look at our legislative program for the first year, it is a blank piece of paper.”
A degree of blankness makes political sense. Cameron cannot be certain of the state of the country, much less the state of its finances, when and if he takes over. Furthermore, too many specifics can dangerously narrow a politician’s appeal when he’s seeking the widest possible support. “Substance is overrated in election campaigns,” says Daniel Finkelstein, a Times of London editorialist and former Tory strategist.
Since Cameron become Tory leader in 2005, his main objective has been not to develop a coherent alternative to Labour—indeed he has embraced much of its centrist agenda—but to soften the hard edges of a political machine with a “nasty party” reputation left over from the days of Margaret Thatcher.
As a former public-relations executive, Cameron knew how to use language to shape his image and reshape his party’s. The Tories were temporarily rebranded on their Web site as “Cameron's Conservatives,” and Cameron spoke often and at length about a responsibility to protect the environment, “social justice” and “global poverty”—words not automatically associated with Thatcher or her successor, John Major.
In recent months, Cameron has sought to bulk up his shadow cabinet. To balance the perceived lighter-weight credentials of his friend and shadow chancellor, 37-year-old George Osborne, Cameron brought back as shadow business secretary the avuncular and popular Ken Clarke, a 68-year-old who had served in the Thatcher and Major governments. Cameron promoted his well-thought-of shadow foreign secretary, former party leader William Hague, 48, making him his deputy “in all but name,” as he put it.
Team Cameron has also moved beyond writing policy papers and into something like action. The shadow cabinet has begun meeting with senior civil servants to prepare a government changeover, and a Tory MP tells me teams of consultants from KPMG and Deloitte have been “embedded in the process” of constructing what the MP calls “a 100-days-and-beyond plan”—although the MP declined to go into specifics.
The Major government is a useful template with which to compare the current political landscape in the United Kingdom. After so many years in power—Thatcher took office in 1979—the Conservatives were by the mid-1990s consumed by infighting, divided over Britain’s role in Europe and tainted by the kind of sleaze that tends to crop up in long-serving governments.
Ironically, given today’s state of affairs, when the Labour Party demolished the Tories in 1997, Tony Blair inherited an economy in terrific shape and embarked on a decade of unprecedented prosperity. In the early days of his leadership, Cameron would tell friends and close allies that he was the natural “heir to Blair.” He meant that he was a centrist and modernizer in the Blair mold. He could not have foreseen that he would be inheriting an economy in tatters. Now that he knows more or less what’s ahead of him, it’s all the more important for Cameron to recognize that he’s no longer just the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition; he’s prime minister-in-waiting, and he will have to act more and more like one.
Stryker McGuire is an American journalist working in London. McGuire is a contributing editor at Newsweek magazine, where he was a correspondent, bureau chief and editor for 30 years; the founding editor of International Quarterly , and an associate at Lombard Street Research, an economics consultancy in the City of London.