The election may still be a few week away, but the Conservatives have already lost it. 7th May will simply confirm the result*. In fact I can tell you the exact day David Cameron lost this election: 21st March 2012 – the day of the ‘Omnishambles’ Budget when Osborne cut the top 50p rate of income tax. It was the day Miliband decisively turned the tables and built a polling lead that has lasted three years.
What’s important aren’t the details of what happened but that Cameron learnt nothing from that debacle. The right-wing press had been pushing them to cut the 50p rate, arguing it would boost the party and help the economy. The Tory leadership bought the hype and followed their instructions, and the establishment was shocked when the (entirely predictable) collapse in support followed.
Cameron needed to learn just one lesson from that day: ignore the right-wing press. But of course he just kept capitulating to the UKIP brigade.
We may dislike the Sun, Telegraph and the Daily Mail, but we should thank them for this: they killed Cameron’s centrist instincts and dragged him so far to the right that victory is now even more out of his grasp than in 2010.
For five years the Tories lived in their own bubble where right-wing commentators assured them they were doing the right thing and Miliband had no chance of winning. No one epitomised this more than the Telegraph’s Dan Hodges who consistently wrote what Cameron wanted to hear and soon become his favourite columnist.
The personal attacks on Miliband as being ‘weird’ were a perfect example of this bubble mentality. The Tories were convinced that the British public would hate Miliband the more they saw him, another myth perpetuated by the right-wing press.
But the debates have completely changed the dynamic and the polls show it. This weekend YouGov found that significantly more Britons believe Labour are ready for government – including 80% of Labour voters. As YouGov’s CEO pointed out, “the Tories’ assumption that the British public would never trust Miliband with the big job is looking a bit shaky”.
In fact most of the assumptions the Tories made about this election now look shaky. We thought it was going to be about the deficit and immigration. Instead they have been forced to offer bribes (Right-to-Buy, Lloyds shares) for votes and undercut their own message of fiscal discipline. Plus, with the immigration pledge of 2010 in tatters and people drowning in the Mediterranean, they have stayed away from focusing on the latter issue too.
A prominent broadcast journalist told me last week he couldn’t see why the Tories were doing so badly, given the relatively positive employment numbers. Across the pond, President Obama is reaping the benefits of falling unemployment and growing economy, so why isn’t Cameron?
The answer lies in in the Budget of 2012. Cameron would be in a much better place now if he had positioned himself as a moderate, centrist Tory who created jobs. Instead, his administration has allowed itself, for good reason, to be painted as one that cut taxes for millionaires and created low-paid jobs for the rest.
On May 8th, David Cameron won’t even be able to cobble together a majority in Parliament. For that we partly have the right-wing press to thank, not just for killing the modernisation project but convincing him he was doing fine. The bubble is about to be burst.
* Barring any calamitous event of course