Cameron’s quest for economic and political growth

David Cameron comes to Manchester proclaiming the promise of economic and seeking political growth. There was a blizzard of announcements with some projected job creation numbers attached to them that made me think of the last occupant of Number 10. The plan is to communicate a sense of purpose and hope on economic growth – we are pulling all available levers and it will, one day, come.

Political growth, though, is what this week is all about too. The Tories find from their own polling that punters associate them with only one policy – cutting. Their other reforms are lost in the ether and it is all reinforcing their old cold image. Our own spectrum poll commissioned from YouGov suggests they have quite a perception problem on their hands.

David Cameron’s leadership in opposition was all about dragging perceptions of his party to the centre ground. In his first 2 years in opposition he was getting somewhere. His own ratings even if not the party’s were on a steady and significant move to the centre. Michael Howard was a +52 to the right of centre on a 0 – 100 scale when he was leader. David Cameron got to well within that at +28 in 2007. Where do the public see him after a year and a half in No. 10? He’s at +43 in our poll, which is not where he wants to be and, interestingly, the mirror image of Ed Miliband.

Ed Miliband is seen as at -42 on a spectrum (for comparison, Gordon Brown was seen as at -27 and Tony Blair the political magician managed to pop up at +7 to the right of centre). To be seen as a leader as far to the right as Ed M is seem to the left is so not what Mr Cameron wants. So today you hear him sending a political bunch of flowers to women voters in the hope their increasing hostility will dampen. You will hear all week the language of “empathy” and “modern compassionate conservatism.” And you will the PM and others popping up outside the conference beaming in images to the bubble that are intended to show how policies are making things better for folk and how the Tories are not just about cutting.

At the heart of this strategy is a belief that the Tories didn’t win outright in 2010 because their modernisation, softening agenda was not complete (in part, blown off course by the banking crisis and the switch in deficit strategy). But that is not a view shared by all David Cameron’s backbenchers, particularly some of the 2010 intake, often businessmen of a certain age, the rotarian tendency. Chat to them and some of them say Mr Cameron was more of a problem than an asset for them. They want to talk about Europe and David Cameron believes the old adage that such talk is toxic to centre ground strategies.

One other thing in the poll that strikes you. Nick Clegg finds himself bang on the bulls eye of political targets – at “0″ in the spectrum. Dig down into the numbers though and you can see that this is because a lot of Labour leaning people see him as right wing (+20 on the spectrum) and a lot of Tory leaning people see him as left wing (-15 on the spectrum). It looks as though his “differentiation” strategy is bringing his ratings closer to the centre. It may also, with the constant mantra of “we’re the sane ones in the coalition holding back the blood-thirsty, swivel-eyed Tories” – I paraphrase – be contributing to David Cameron’s ratings pinging to the right.

Unlike the Blair days or the early Cameron days, the parties themselves are rated pretty close to their leaders, no great gaps in our poll.