Today’s ICM poll will not make easy reading in CCHQ; but then there isn’t much that has made easy reading for CCHQ recently. Conducted in the middle of the Northern Rock crisis the poll doesn’t simply show Brown ahead of Cameron but shows him trouncing Cameron; worse still it shows Cameron to be less popular than the bumbling Ming (and lets be honest that’s not easy). That said it’ll be great to see what the CCHQ spin is on it: “um, well, uh, it… it looks bad, but basically… um… flying on planes is immoral and people should be taxed more for… oh wait, that’s what got us here in the first place… um… aha, yes that’s it... we expected this dip… it’s completely normal and…”
It’s difficult to say what’s the most significant thing to come out of this poll (and let’s remember it is only one poll, at the moment). However one thing certain to be at the top of the list is Labour finally hitting the 40% mark after sitting at 39% for a while; 40% being the symbolic mark Cameron has chased for the past two years. What makes it worse of course, as today’s Guardian points out, is that the Conservatives have fallen to 32% which places them in the biggest deficit in an ICM poll since Cameron took over in 2005.
The big thing for CCHQ though has to be Cameron’s approval rating (or lack of) with Conservative voters. Lower than both Brown’s and Ming’s with their respective voters; Brown is three times as popular with Labour voters than Cameron is with Conservatives and, most worryingly, Ming is twice as popular with LibDem voters. Languishing on +25 now is a time for Team Cameron to take a moment and re-evaluate.
The reality is that Cameron is in this position because [cue anger from the win-at-any-cost-brigade in the comments] he appears to many in the Conservative base to have abandoned them. And that’s the point. In politics image is perception and perception is reality. Accordingly if the image you portray is one of tax hikes (regardless of whether they are in aid of a better environment – which is disputable), if your policy review mechanisms are able to propose things that anger you base, if you constantly chase floating voters to the exclusion of those who form the rock upon which your political church is built, guess what? Things don’t go so well.
If Cameron wants to turn things around he faces an uphill struggle. Firstly he needs to prevent Brown from going to the polls for as long as possible (not easy when even Northern Rock appears to have strengthened Brown’s position – something I argued yesterday). Secondly he needs to reconnect with the base without losing the floating voters. The reality is that the environment is not the issue that’s going to achieve that; aside from anything else it rates rather low on the list of issues people would vote on (6th according to the ICM poll). But Cameron can win big on issues like crime and social disintegration.
When for example Cameron talks about social breakdown he talks like a conservative; rolling back the state, empowering the individual, allowing communities the freedom to support themselves. But most importantly he talks about those things with compassion – in a way that connects with the wider electorate – without angering the base.
As I’ve said already, I have yet to make up my mind about Cameron (which after two years in the job is incredible), but equally I haven’t turned against him. I’m just waiting to be convinced, and the base is the same. The base isn’t going to run into the arms of Ming, and they’re certainly not going to run into the arms of Brown. But they may simply stay home. Cameron just needs to give them a reason to open the front door and walk to the polling station – and the thing is he can.
But he needs to adjust his strategy quickly.