While we haven't quite moved into chanting "You're not singing anymore, you're not sing-ing-ing-ing anymore!" at the Tories across the Commons Chamber, there's no doubt that things aren't looking quite so bright for them as the year draws to a close. This has come as a bit of a shock to Conservative MPs, many of whom had been smugly strutting around Westminster as if the red boxes were already in their little paws. There was a distinct air of complacency, as evidenced by the news from my colleagues in marginal seats that Ashcroft money was being diverted from there (which were seen as 'in the bag' by the Tories) to the real long shots, those that would only fall to the Tories in a 1997 landslide scenario.
But now the tide seems to be turning. The Times reports that the Tory campaign team is retrenching, trying to shore up support in the ultra-marginals. Successive opinion polls have shown a trend of the Tory lead narrowing, with the latest Populus poll (see below) leaving the Tories 20 seats short of an overall majority. Factor into that five months of the Tories being subjected to scrutiny - one of the reasons they've done so very badly over the past few weeks - and the usual narrowing of the polls in the governing party's favour during the short campaign, as people move from expressing a protest vote to choosing a preference. Conservative Central Office certainly shouldn't be uncorking the champers yet. (Except it's probably a daily occurence, whether there's something to celebrate or not. Cue cries of 'class warfare' from aggrieved public schoolboys...)
Another sign that the Tories are rattled and that their private polling is telling them things they don't really want to hear, is that Cameron is very clearly following in the footsteps of previous Tory leaders - Hague pre-2001, Howard pre-2005 - and tacking to the right. His ludicrous Elf 'n' Safety speech was just one example, presumably cobbled together in a mad rush to grab a cheap headline as it was soon revealed to be based on the Health and Safety Executive's own collection of Elf 'n' Safety myths. The reversion to Tory type on marriage and single parents is another example (which I will blog about on another occasion, soon). Immigration will no doubt be next. It's clearly designed to shore up their core vote, which they're worried about losing to UKIP. (This is one reason why the Tories are struggling to breach the 40% barrier in the polls; look at the figures for 'Others'. They can't rely on what was always a bogus promise to hold a referendum on Lisbon now, despite even managing to fool Rupert Murdoch into backing them on that basis. So they have to look for other issues. It's all dog-whistle stuff, designed to appeal to right-wing voters).
The other side of this coin is that Cameron is doing much less of the cuddly Cameroonian stuff too. This week saw the fourth anniversary of Cameron's election as Tory party leader. It also saw thousands of people marching through London ahead of Copenhagen, to call for tough action to tackle climate change. The Cameron of 2005 - the cycling to work, posing with huskies Cameron - would have been on The Wave, no doubt about it, claiming the blue clad marchers as his own, pushing his way into every photo-op going. But where were the Tories - not just Cameron, any Tories - on Saturday? Nowhere to be seen. Not even Zac.
Is this because Cameron's got to pander to the climate change deniers - of which there are many - in his own party? Or is it because he no longer has the audacity to claim to be something he patently obviously isn't? Does he realise he's been rumbled? The problem for Cameron is that he hasn't yet 'sealed the deal' in terms of convincing people that he and his party have changed. Four years of being photographed pushing a trolley round Tesco's and having his bicycle stolen and claiming to like the Smiths* hasn't been enough to overcome the residual doubts of those who remember what life was like under a Tory government. Not enough to overcome the suspicion of those who wonder whether someone who served as an economic adviser to Norman Lamont has really changed his spots. (And notice I got through that without mentioning Eton once. Again, that's another blog).
*Cameron was allegedly 'obsessed with' Phil Collins at university. I say 'allegedly' as it's a terrible thing to be accused of if it's not true.