Insights from the UK and beyond
Cameron survives Lewisham lion’s den
On the face of it, the booing suffered by David Cameron at the hands of a boisterous group of students and job-seekers at a London college is not a good news story for the Tories.
Facing loud accusations of being a Thatcherite clone and jeers of “No Tory cuts” is presumably not what the Tory spin doctors hoped for when they organised this merry jaunt to Lewisham College.
Indeed, the sight of a frantic Tory press officer bobbing between students, mouthing “Take another question, take another question” to Cameron while he was being heckled would suggest it wasn’t in the script.
But one couldn’t help feeling admiration for Dave (as Sam Cam told ITV she refers to hubbie) as he handled the jibes with apparent ease, telling an audience increasingly emboldened by their 15-minutes in the election spotlight, that he wasn’t scared of “telling the truth”.
By the end the prime ministerial hopeful received a polite round of applause from the 100 or so students, even though most of them will probably not put an X next to a Conservative candidate’s name when, or indeed if, they decide to enter the ballot box.
It may be a naïve hope, but could it be that Cameron’s willingness to stand up in a large room full of unfriendly voters heralds a new beginning for British electioneering? Maybe the era of the pre-scripted news events perfected by New Labour, to the increasing dismay of voters and media commentators, is over, for this year at least.
As a former PR person himself, Cameron knows that despite his partial success in ‘detoxifying’ the Tory party, politicians of all colours are more unpopular than ever. The expenses scandal has left Parliament’s reputation in tatters and Cameron understands that serious work is required to engage disenchanted voters in the forthcoming campaign.
Cameron may have decided that by standing up in front of unfriendly crowds and taking the boo-boys head on he can earn a similar polling day boost to that enjoyed by John Major during the last successful Tory election campaign of ’92.
Major’s ‘soap box’ campaign was much derided when he first stepped onto the wooden box in Luton shopping centre 18 years ago. The commentators who sniggered at the low-tech, outdated technique weren’t laughing when Major pulled off an unexpected victory three weeks later.
In the Lewisham bear pit Cameron made great play of comparing his willingness to answer hostile questions to the apparent unhappiness of his Labour opponent to do the same. “Find me the time when the prime minister stands in front of a room full of unscreened people,” he sneered. Miaow!
Yet it seems that Gordon Brown may have decided on pursuing the same strategy himself. The revelation that the PM will appear in front of TV studio audiences composed of undecided voters suggests that the Labour election team understand the need for politicians to convince the public that they understand the electorate’s anger and share their pain.
In the face of the worst recession for 60 years and the catastrophic collapse in public trust of politicians, Brown wants to appear to be a man of the people – more hairshirt than stuffed shirt.
So I say three cheers to Messrs Cameron and Brown for hinting that this election might be less about spin and more about engaging with real voters. If only they could learn to counter their obsession with swing voters in marginal constituencies, we might even have a decent election campaign to enjoy.