Do You Need to Like the Prime Minister? Gordon Hopes Not.

by Alex Massie

What kind of Prime Minister are voters looking for in hard times? Gordon Brown asks the public to take "a second look" at Labour and "a  long, hard look" at the Conservatives. It's a good sound-bite, even if it implicitly concedes that voters are turned-off by Labour. But are they sufficiently disgusted to vote Tory? This is Gordon's attempt to play the part of Dirty Harry, asking the electorate if they're confident they feel lucky today.

Brown may well be a foul-mouthed bully who terrorises his staff and he may well bear much of the responsbility for the country's parlous economic situation, but he's asking voters to ignore the latter (focus on the future!) and consider the former proof of the Prime Minister's passion and willingness to get his hands dirty. Sure, he's "difficult" to work with, but this is no time for simpering angels in Downing Street.

It's an audacious gambit: Yes, you may hate me but when did I ever ask you to like me? I'm not Tony Blair, you know. Can he pull it off? I still doubt it. Heck, common sense demands that one doubt it. But...

In total contrast to Brown, David Cameron can occasionally seem as though he's the kind of Englishman that might be played by Hugh Grant. Decent, amiable, brightish, but, in some sense, lacking bottom. He even lives in Notting Hill. This is doubtless an unfair caricature, but there is a feeling that the Camerons live lives of such comfort and, yes, wealth, that they are insulated from the concerns of"ordinary hard-working families".

Rachel Sylvester, one of the smartest, best-connected columnists around, captures something of this in the Times today:

The narrowing in the Tory poll lead can, at least in part, be explained by the fact that Mr Cameron still too often gives the impression that he thinks he was “born to rule” rather than that he has to campaign to become Prime Minister with a clear idea of what he wants to do with the job.

It’s not just the well-scrubbed public schoolboy’s face, the slick, neatly brushed hair or the smart-enough- to-dress-down open-neck shirt. It’s not just the expenses claim for wisteria trimming or the organic veg patch or even the Eton and Bullingdon Club background.

The Notting Hill set that runs the Tory Party has managed to create a feeling that they are, as Sir Nicholas Winterton put it so memorably, a “different class of people”.

[...] When Mr Cameron describes the Conservatives as the “party of the poor” it conjures up a picture of the local grandee handing out food parcels to hungry villagers. When the Tory leader hugs huskies it looks a bit like Prince Charles hugging trees, an environmentalism rooted in a desire to conserve. The “broken society” is something theoretical and remote from the white stuccoed villas of West London or the white beaches of Belize.

This isn’t class war. There is a cliquishness to the Cameron circle that conveys the sense that its members are detached from the rest of the country. They are godparents to each others’ children, they share school runs and swap dinner parties. Unlike those around Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, key members of the inner group are bound together by friendship first and politics second. There is an incestuousness to a set that had rows and reconciliations, romances and rejections, way before it ever thought of seeking power.

But, as they come to an election, voters want to know whether the Conservative leader would be an effective Prime Minister, not whether he is a loyal friend. It’s not enough for Mr Cameron to think that he would be good at the job, or to believe, in a rather patrician way, that it is his duty to serve his country. He has to convince a sceptical electorate that he has a sense of mission about the kind of Britain he wants and a sense of purpose about how he would create it.

Again, this is not wholly fair and far from the whole story. But there's something to it. Cameron's life has not been trouble-free (he recently marked the anniversary of the death of his young, severely disabled, son Ivan) and Brown, however much he might pretend otherwise, has not worked his way up from some benighted housing project.

Nevertheless, the election is, on one level, a contest between hard and soft power. This actually extends to the candidates' political philosophies too: Brown is a "hard" centraliser, Cameron a "soft" distributist. The latter, though in keeping with the way we live our lives these days, may be a tougher sell - especially in rocky, fretful times.

Sure, common-sense demands that we laugh at any Brownite claim that Gordon is a "safe pair of hands" but that's what he's pitching. If you're bold and brassy enough perhaps you can get away with anything. Cameron's challenge, then, is not merely a question of reminding voters of Brown's failures, but of convincing them that he has the guts and the courage and the steel to really tackle the problems Britain faces.

But he must also be wary of falling into the trap of seeming too harsh, too judgemental, too de haut en bas. It's a tricky problem: how to convince voters that you're tough enough without also reminding them of the (perceived) harshness that has cost the Tories dearly in recent elections and helped Labour to three crushing victories. Brown might be able to get away with being the "Nasty Candidate", the Tories, in part because of the leadership's privileged backgrounds, cannot be seen again as the "Nasty Party".