To the public, a week is a short time in politics

By Mary Ann Sieghart (THE TIMES, 13/04/06):

Patience is a virtue. But it’s one that the Conservative Party — and its followers in the press — have found very hard to display. They want results straight away and start complaining when the instant gratification fails to materialise.

Hence David Cameron is attacked for not scoring more highly in the polls. This is a bit rich, since he is doing better than any of his three predecessors as leader. They tended to bump along at 30-34 per cent; Cameron has lifted the party to 35-39 per cent, not at all a bad start.

But it is not good enough for Tories who want to be able to snap their fingers and change the world. You might have thought that Conservatives, both by their nature and their age, would be suspicious of such a quick fix. They cannot resist, however, sniping at Cameron and his advisers for not delivering a large opinion poll lead.

They note that when Tony Blair became leader, Labour jumped by about ten points in the polls. But that was at a time when the Government was extraordinarily unpopular, and disaffected Tory voters were desperate for an alternative. Unemployment was still very high, the recession a recent memory and negative equity a scary reality.

Now, by contrast, the economy has been growing for every year that Labour has been in power. Most people who want a job can find one. The country is pretty prosperous and content. As a result, Labour is still popular. So, with a new leader, are the Liberal Democrats.

But more important, it takes a very long time for people’s opinions to change. I can remember, in 1995 or 1996, complaining to Gordon Brown that if I heard him bang on one more time about fat cats, I thought I would explode with boredom. His reply? “Only when people like you are starting to feel like that will the average voter be even starting to hear the message.”

He was right. Most voters are barely interested in politics from one general election to the next. When they hear a politician droning on, the first thing they do is switch channels. They have about as much enthusiasm for politics as I do for football.

I get excited — well, a little excited, anyway — at World Cup and Euro-whatever time. League football leaves me completely cold. I don’t care who manages which team, and would no more bother to read an article about José Mourinho’s future than most people would bother to read one on Patricia Hewitt’s future. So I can completely understand why it takes a long time for a political message to percolate through to an essentially apolitical electorate. As Brown realised, it has to be said again and again and again and again — until well after the political commentariat is utterly sick of it.

What this means is that leaders who are trying to change perceptions of their party (as Brown and Tony Blair were in the mid-1990s) have to hold their nerve. William Hague started off quite promisingly, but when his modernising talk made no dent in the polls, he succumbed to the traditionalists’ demands. Michael Howard, too, began by cloaking himself in social liberalism and ended by banging on about immigration.

Both leaders were put under pressure not just by their own activists but also by the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. In the end, they were unable to resist — particularly since they could not point to an improvement in the polls as evidence that their chosen course was working.

Cameron can. His poll increase may be modest, but it is at least progress in the right direction. And it is a sign that he is taking his party in the right direction. But even those voters who are interested in politics want to see sustained and consistent change if they are to be persuaded that it is genuine. Views held for a decade cannot be wiped out in six months.

So Francis Maude was realistic, not defeatist, to admit at the weekend that the Tories may not win the next election. Even if Cameron does all the right things between now and then, it will be hard for the party to win seats in cities in which it now languishes in third place, such as Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle. And it is not just the industrial North in which the Conservatives are doing terribly. They have just one councillor in Cambridge and none in Oxford.

The party’s problem is that for a very long time, Conservatism has been socially unacceptable among professionals in many of Britain’s big towns and cities. Cameron may succeed in turning this perception around. But he has to be given time.

I’m not a woman for all seasons

Like a fool, I thought that if I went away for four months between October and February, I would miss most of the English winter. By the time we returned, the daffodils would be budding, the cold would be lifting, and spring would be tantalisingly close. As someone who suffers from winter blues, I was looking forward to avoiding them for a year. But we came back to what must have been one of the coldest “springs” in memory. And here we are in mid-April with snow settling in Sussex!

What is hardest to deal with, mood-wise, are these violent lurches from one season to another in the course of a day. On Sunday, for instance, we left the house in glorious spring sunshine only to be hit by a freezing hailstorm within hours.

I find myself staggering from elation to depression in the short time that it takes for the skies to cloud and the temperature to fall. I’m not sure my sanity can take much more volatility.

Vest and worst

There are rumours in the fashion world that Prada is thinking of designing a high street range for H&M. Apparently fashionistas are agog at the thought. Imagine being able to pick up a Prada top for £19.99 . . . Accompanying an article I read were photos of models in unprepossessing Prada gear. In the first, the model wore — I kid you not — a beige towelling vest at £255 and beige towelling pants at £125.

£255 for a vest? Even worse, £255 for a beige towelling vest? It’s hardly silk or cashmere. It sounds — and looks — like the type of hideous clothing you found on your school-uniform list. Prada would have to pay me at least £255 to wear a beige towelling vest in public. On reflection, I’m not sure even that would be enough.