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Life after David Cameron: the Conservatives have lost a major asset

Written by Roger Mortimore

David Cameron – according to Kenneth Clarke – was a PR-obsessed control freak. If that is the case, he is not a bad advert for what PR and control freakery can achieve for a politician’s public standing. Cameron was almost always positively rated by the public – or at least viewed more favourably than is usual for politicians.

He was first elected as an MP in 2001 and was working for the Conservative party before that. But he attracted no notice in the polls before coming apparently from nowhere to emerge as a serious contender for the party leadership in September 2005.

When Ipsos Mori first included him in a poll during that leadership contest, only 8% of the public chose him as their preferred leader. Only 6% thought he would make the most capable prime minister of the four candidates in the running.

Of course, at that point few people knew much about him. It didn’t take Cameron long to make an impact, though. A month into the leadership campaign he was well ahead of the other candidates in the public’s esteem and among party members. And by the time we asked the public for the first time if they were satisfied with the way he was doing his job as leader, in January 2006, he had accumulated almost a two-to-one margin in his favour (although with many don’t knows, as is always the case for a new leader).

That first rating of 31% satisfied, 17% dissatisfied was perhaps an early indication that Cameron had the public appeal to eventually become prime minister. Tony Blair’s first figures as Labour leader (33% to 19%) had been very similar. Cameron’s Conservative predecessors William Hague (21% to 24%), Iain Duncan Smith (22% to 14%) and Michael Howard (22% to 21%) had made an early positive impression on barely two-thirds as many of the voters whose support they needed to draw.

Loved as leader?

Over the next few months, Cameron’s ratings were less impressive, but there was a dramatic improvement after Gordon Brown became prime minister, especially once the scale of the financial crisis became apparent. Perhaps this was just a case of being in the right place at the right time, but it was certainly positive.

Between June 2008 and May 2009, Cameron’s average rating was 48% satisfied, 33% dissatisfied. Brown was scoring 30% satisfied and 63% dissatisfied in the same polls.

Cameron’s Tories were the largest party after the 2010 general election, although it could not secure an overall majority. Whether he was personally to blame for that or whether it was a result of the electoral system will remain a matter of debate but one point which shines out very clearly is that Cameron was always an asset to the Conservatives, not a liability.

Ipsos MORI regularly asks the public whether they like the party leaders and their parties. We did not always find a majority saying they liked Cameron, especially after he had become prime minister, but in every poll he scored better than the Conservative party, sometimes substantially better.

In a poll during the 2010 election campaign, more than one in five of the public, 22%, said they liked David Cameron but did not like the Conservative Party; only 7% liked the party and not its leader.

On average, 32.9% were satisfied with the way the government was running the country while Cameron was in No 10. The long-term average is 30.5% and only Tony Blair (36.3%) has averaged better than Cameron.

Broken by Brexit

Of course, Cameron finally came unstuck at the EU referendum, at least partly because he relied on his ability to transcend modern voters’ instinctive distrust of all politicians and sway them towards a Remain vote. Back in October last year, we found that Cameron was no more trusted to tell the truth about Britain’s relationship with Europe than were Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage, and it seems to have been voters’ disinclination to believe the scare arguments of the Remain campaign that eventually tipped the balance.

Yet there was no great clamour for Cameron to resign. On the eve of the referendum, more of the public thought he should remain PM even if Britain voted to leave than thought he should resign.

That, of course, was never politically realistic. The referendum defeat will probably be what defines Cameron’s premiership and leadership for posterity. But he can look back on a record of having been better than most recent party leaders at sustaining a reputable standing in public opinion for most of his time at the top.

If Theresa May’s ratings have been as good as Cameron’s by the time she retires, she will probably have been a success as prime minister. And paying at least a little attention to good public relations is likely to be a part of that.

Roger Mortimore is the Director of Political Analysis at Ipsos MORI and Professor of Public Opinion and Political Analysis at King’s College London. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: CC by DFID/Flickr.

Published inBrexitBritish PoliticsConservativesEU

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