This blog, like just about every other one, predicted difficult times for the Liberal Democrats brand. While the Barnsley Central byelection result perhaps shows this at its most acute, there is a steady weekly drip that doesn’t bode well for the Lib Dems. At Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron and Ed Miliband slug it out. Nick Clegg, who previously had two questions to the Prime Minister, has his own ghetto, Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions which has yet to enter political folklore.
Does this matter? PMQs has long been known for its yah-boo, tribal quality. Yet it is when audiences group into their tribes that a brand focuses into its sharpest point. Messrs. Osborne and Balls are probably the two most tribal front benchers; they may both be known as bruisers, and their tactics are the same, but they cannot possibly be said to stand for the same thing. Both the content and the delivery matter.
When David Cameron became Leader of the Opposition in 2005, he was audibly in thrall to Tony Blair, and managed only one stand-out line: ‘You were the future once.’ He was quicker to nail Gordon Brown, with several ad hominem attacks. Brown had started off confidently, positioning himself as the father of a grateful nation. As Brown’s government began to unravel, Cameron went for the jugular. Desperately, Brown would ask Cameron what his policies were. Cameron would retort that if Brown wanted to ask Cameron questions, Brown should call an election, the implication being that Cameron would then be prime minister.
As PM, Cameron is more comfortable at the despatch box, but his performances have been curiously patchy. He seems happiest (he would, wouldn’t he?) when set up for a gag by a willing government backbencher. Sometimes he has seemed more keen to make jokes than to make sure that he is being consistent. Thus in one PMQ we heard him tell a Tory backbencher that the health and safety executive should have a match lit under it, only ten minutes later to tell a Labour backbencher that people should take health and safety recommendations very seriously indeed. Full marks for anticipating a question about liking the Smiths, no marks for an unfunny reference to the Foreign Secretary – ‘William, it was really nothing’. HE’S CALLED WILLIAM! GEDDIT?!?!? Astoundingly, he has started to ask Miliband to name his policies, which as the Labour lead in the polls widens, invites the Labour leader to make the same points that Cameron himself did as Opposition Leader.
This week, humour sank to a new low. Miliband’s question on children’s centres in Bromley was a decent one, but led to a reference to the fact that Miliband stood against his brother for the Labour leadership. Astonishingly, a follow up question about Sure Start was met by the same: It could be time for a bit of ‘Brother, where art thou’? SOME OTHER PEOPLE VOTED FOR ANOTHER MILIBAND! GEDDIT?!?!?!?
The tribe loves it, but the problem for Cameron is that he has to reach out to the country as a whole, so what does this mean for the Conservative brand? In some ways, a return to the ‘nasty party’ makes it easier to carry out the current recalibration of public services. Just see the effect on the Liberal Democrats – never the ‘nasty party’. In Barnsley Central this week, the Tory candidate said that the Conservative brand is still toxic in those parts of the country devastated by pit closures in the 1980s. And no one seriously believed that we were all in it together. But as the cuts deepen, I’m not sure that a reliance on partisan one-liners, references to the inherited deficit (large though the deficit is, these references will have a diminishing effect in the future), and attacks by the friendly press on so-called public sector fat cats, will speak to the wider country and add up to a coherent presentation. Eventually, even those inside the tribe will call for more. Serious times call for seriousness. Cameron will do better to go for gravitas and leave the stand up for special occasions.