Cameron’s achilles heel

Did you see those new Tory posters yesterday? Did you? The ones with the ten foot high picture of Mr Cameron, his moon face rising majestically over a thousand billboards while san serif text austerely proclaims “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS“.

Now, as a former third rate adman, I disliked these posters. Putting the word “Cut” in a poster about the NHS is rarely a good idea, “we can’t go on like this” sounds like the bitter end of a relationship, not a courtship. More importantly, the message – that the deficit will be cut but not by cutting the NHS – is confusing at best, and completely incoherent at worst.

The Tory campaign begs the question – How will Mr Cameron cut the deficit? Will he cut the deficit by not protecting spending on defence or by not recognising marriage in the tax system? Will the education poster read “WE CAN’T GO ON LIKE THIS. I’LL CUT THE DEFICIT BY CUTTING SCHOOLS FUNDING”?

Of course not. Therein lies the problem for the Conservative party. They wish to proclam their toughness, yet also hide from the consequences of fiscal austerity by promoting tenderness. They wish to be flinty eyed and caring at the same time. This is why the Cameron photo looks slightly odd. Cameron’s photographer has tried to capture him looking angry, yet hopeful, stern, yet cuddly, compassionate, yet axe wielding. It looks, and feels, odd. Off key. Jarring.


For the last four years, Cameron has proclaimed his faith in the “and” theory of conservatism. You can have conservative policies and progressive ends, lower tax and better services, tax cuts and a pony for every child.

This has allowed him to appear, if not all things to all men, then at least multi faceted – caring yet tough minded. Hopeful, yet purse lipped. (It has also – no small benefit this- allowed him to manage his own party easily, stressing each side of the equation in turn as the political winds shift)

We are no longer in an “and” era. As Mr Cameron himself has said this is a time for tough choices. Yet Mr Cameron’s posters make clear he now wishes to stand for both the hopeful optimism of the “and theory of conservatism” and tough choices of the audit book.

Posters, in the grand scheme of things, matter little. I make so much of these, because I suspect they dramatise Cameron’s achilles heel – the gap between what he proclaims are his values and what he actually wishes to pay for.

I believe this gap will derail Cameronian conservatism. The only question is whether it does so in the election campaign or in office.

Today the distance between rhetoric and funding is found in his language on equality and his inheritance tax proposals, his approach to welfare (where he embraces Wisconsin style reform but appears to believe such reform will cut, not increase, costs) and today in both his policy on the NHS and on marriage tax benefits.

It even extends to the area of policy I have most sympathy with him on – schools, where the budget implications of creating spare capacity in the education system are not so much ignored as consigned to the memory hole.

These gaps represent a real, and dangerous, failing in the Cameron political project. Yesterday we saw the first inklings of the danger for the Tories.

David Cameron went on the radio to deny Labour’s claims that he would increase the deficit by cutting tax for married couples. Caught in the gap between his rhetoric on marriage and the limits of his pocketbook, he twisted uneasily, claiming that he would “definitely hope” to reduce such taxes but couldn’t say when or by how much. When he got back to the office, his team deleted the hope, but kept the uncertainty about when and how.

At the same time, the Tory health team were busy denying reports that their manifesto had dumped expensive pledges made in earlier times. See. There’s the gap.

So how should Labour handle this?

Obviously the first requirement is to be clear ourselves about what we protect and what we don’t. I think supporting industrial investment, education, frontline services, defence and police is the right strategy.

Second, in our approach to the Conservatives, I favour mockery. The conservative stategy can be caricatured as the belief that we should all be eating gruel, but thanks to the magic of Cameron’s progressive ends this gruel will taste like caviar.

In the end, we know who’ll get the gruel, and who the caviar.

39 Responses to “Cameron’s achilles heel”

  1. CS Clark

    Sure, ‘We can’t go on like this’ sounds iffy, but bear in mind the rejected slogans:

    ‘It’s not you, it’s me’
    ‘I’m just going through some stuff right now’
    ‘If you liked it, you should have put a ring on it’
    ‘I must leave you. Why, I cannot say. Where, you cannot know. How I will get there, I haven’t decided yet. But one thing I can tell you, any time I hear the wind blow it will whisper the name George.’

    (Also (and I might be wrong in my attempt at pedantry, so forgive) but isn’t the Tory campaign’s question begging about assumptions of need to cut deficit, quickly and grossly? Ah, I can never get that one straight.)

    I’m not sure how useful outright mockery is. Cameron’s problem isn’t just being vague, which everyone does to an extent, it’s doing so while pretending to be a different kind of politician. (Mock, let’s face it) sympathy seems more apt – saying that you can understand the problems he faces with his party, but that while the British people understand that commitments may not be honoured as circumstances change, they need to know if promises are being made in the first place so that actual debate can occur. (And caviar? I call CLASS WAR on that.)

    Sidenote: I have no idea what it was like being a Tory in 1997 – did they get all excited every time they though they had a ‘good’ day?

    • Hopi Sen

      on begging the question – I’m probably cutting it fine, but I’m usaying that the unstated assumption is that the deficit will/must be cut somehow, which leaves us with the question “how”. Though I admit it seems I’m shading into the dreaded modern usage.

  2. CS Clark

    PS – Now that I think about it, Achilles Heel? He’s invulnerable to everything except one teeny-tiny hard to hit spot? As if.

    • Hopi Sen

      Well, bear in mind that I regard Achilles as the most over-rated whining little mother’s boy in literary history, and think him the second most despicable character in the iliad.

      (and remember Achilles nearly loses the Trojan war all by himself when going into an almighty sulk because his puisance is questioned)

  3. Tom Freeman

    It’s a strange poster. If you removed the words “not the NHS” you’d have a wholly consistent (if too harsh) message about being in dire straits and needing tough action. But the cuddly add-on doesn’t connect in any way to the rest of it.

    And I’m not sure that wearing a tieless shirt while staring at us like Ben from Lost’s management consultant brother is really universal semiotics for ‘I love the NHS’…

    • Oval Epicure

      I’d have thought the Lib Dem anti-airbrushing campaigners would have something to say about that picture too.

  4. newmania

    I favour mockery.

    Ooo my sides , my sides …You are rather jolly for a New Labour Myrmidon Hopi but funny , ok..( if you like pathos) .In a break from the hilarity, you might clear something up ? Are we over the phase of arguing that 100% of GDP debt and 15% deficits are ok because Japan did it? I don’t get it . Surely pretending that the world will fall to pieces because ,in the view of the Labour Party`s election machine, spending commitments are not costed is difficult .You are also pretending that it is vital we continue to borrow as much as possible and print money until May? Ang’,on in his truly comedic PBR didn`t the darling , fill his black hole with growth forecast that were , universally …mocked ?

    The hole will in fact be filled with taxes levied on the aspiring folk recently re imported in the New Labour lexicon. I suspect we are stuffed whoever gets in but we all know whose fault it is ..including La Toynbee “Brown cannot admit the monumental error he and Ed Balls made in their economic policies because there are some mistakes just too big to apologise for” Quite .

    BTW whats a puisance ? I seem to recall it was something to do with his gay loveur

  5. snowflake5

    According to the Daily Mail, the photo was airbrushed – that’s why it looks weird. I think he didn’t want his wrinkles to show! I can’t believe they were daft enough to go for fakery when Cameron has an issue with phoniness.

  6. quietzapple

    There’s another gap . . .

    No tie, and the poster I saw drew attention to this by putting the place where the tie should have been on the baseline.

    Now he may be after the GQ vote, but any sane Tory Leader would be worried about the depredations of UKIP and stuffier folk.

    Core vote may well not win a majority, but his losing a chunk of it will suit Labour and UKIP well.

    They may more to a “tie on” phase, but the louche image will be hard to shake off I suspect.

  7. bert

    I’ll bet anything that you certainly WILL NOT see a giant poster with our deluded PM stuck on it, with that demented grin.

    Two words that say the Tories will win a decent majority – Gordon Brown. Simples.

    • quietzapple


      Brown’s beatific grin will be seen on TV, no airbrushing required.

      I am truly beginning to look forward to the disappointments of people like you. Nasty party, tends to attract Simples, true.

      Thus far in the Campaign which he heralded Chameleon has 1.5 /5, Labour 3.5/5.

      Only 9% for HMG to catch the scunners and up to another 5 months to achieve that. Oh, in the previous 5 months Labour has fought back from -18 to -9%.

      • newmania

        I agree with that there is a very real danger of a far left tax and spend government actually sinking the country and as for tax payers …yeeesh its does not bear thinking about

        My only hope is that the actial reality of five more years of Brown will work the other way.

      • bert

        I think the Left long, long ago took over the mantle of nastiest people.

        And of course, we all know the core Labour vote make up the intelligencia in this country.

        There’s no delusion with me when I say Labour are doomed to electoral defeat. There is an overwhelming delusion with “people like you” who still think the good folk of Middle England will vote for a demented abberation like Gordon Brown.

  8. Paul Sagar


    On “begging the question”, you are definitely over the line into modern usage.

    My pedant alarm went off on the first read, and was kept ringing on the second.

  9. Phil

    Very strange poster.

    What a terrible way to begin: ‘We can’t go on like this’.

    Reminds me of Elvis and Suspicious Minds.

    Caught in a trap alright.

    Deeply suspicious.

  10. Lee Skevington

    I passed one of these ads in the car on my way into London the other day – I had to glance twice. I thought it was completely bizarre and I actually had to laugh at it.

    It just felt odd. It seems like they just have so much money but aren’t sure what to do with it – so they bought some billboard space and put up some cheesy ads.

    • quietzapple

      What is still more bizarre is that Chameleon and Osborne’s only strong suit is PR.

      Ashcroft and others are putting up big mazooma, it is not conceivable that it will all be blasted on nonsense.

      And they are fouling up big time on the “policy” front too.

      Contrary to what my dad always said, God is Labour.

  11. tonimoroni

    Not sure which agency is doing the Tory ads, but Saatchi & Saatchi (of ‘Labour isn’t Working’ fame) is doing Brown’s posters (‘Not Flash, just Gordon’) right now.

    A possible marketing strategy might be to keep Osborne front and centre so the fact he’s out of his depth on the economy is always exposed. Next might be to ask ‘why vote for a man who isn’t even the most popular Tory in his own party?’ That honour belongs to Bojo.

  12. quietzapple

    I must say, Hopi, that Chameleon’s sole point in common with Achilles is in the heel department.

    In appearance surely he is slightly puckish? He has been criticised for “girdling the earth” and might, perhaps, be given work in Africa, as I have suggested before.

    Would make a change for a Tory ex-leader to do something useful.

  13. yorksranter

    Judgment on the billboards, which I saw this weekend; not impressive. Where is the conviction? No colour and no message and no jokes.

  14. Dave

    I haven’t actually seen any of these posters in person, and since I’m in Scotland I’m beginning to wonder if the tories have realised that their electoral chances are so crap up here they’ve just decided not to bother trying.

  15. Alex Fisher

    Textbook rhetoric from Cameron.

    The art of a lot of political rhetoric is to say things that are vague enough so that there is plausible deniability in terms of some position that will tick off a constituency but that can be interpreted by those who are receptive in a way that is favourable to their interests. This process pushes politicians towards emptier and emptier rhetoric.

    For example,

    “What is your platform for governing the country, Mr. Cameron?” “Change.”

    Well yes, we agree that we need change but what sort of change? The thing about Cameron’s ‘year for change’ is that it’s vague enough for people to buy into it, the kind of change that they favour without their being change in the aspects of the status quo that they’re happy with.

    As you can see, this view is pure hypocrisy.

  16. Quietzapple

    Up to a point, Max, up to a point . . .

    Chameleon is the front honcho for The Conservative Party and many of their traditional supporters prefer to conserve rather than change the status quo.

    They used this mantra in the Local Elections alongside the Euros and it didn’t seem to go wonderfully vs HMG midterm. In some areas where there was a cons council it seems counter any sense whatsoever, so they must have been looking for building for the Parliamentary GE.

    If you get too vague you are associated with meaningless twaddle and just look like a man with a slogan. Chameleon aspires to that, Gordon Brown never has.

  17. Brian Whiteman

    Rember the Poster in 1979, Labours Not Working
    where actors depicted a dole queue, who thought that would work before the election.
    Mrs Thatcher also made vague promises, not a lot of fact, just generalities, just like know.
    Be aware the same can happen again.

  18. MH Media

    Cameron’s photographer has tried to capture him looking angry, yet hopeful, stern, yet cuddly, compassionate, yet axe wielding. It looks, and feels, odd. Off key. Jarring.

    As an occasional portrait photographer I can empathise with this: I often find myself telling my subject “I’m a photographer, not a plastic surgeon”. Of course I only tell them this in my mind, but you get my drift. You can’t airbrush lipstick on a pig.

  19. Peter Carswell

    “More importantly, the message – that the deficit will be cut but not by cutting the NHS – is confusing at best, and completely incoherent at worst.”

    How is this confusing? It sounds pretty simple to me (and the straw pole of people I’ve taken around the lounge). When you (and any other commentator) make stupid statements like this, I ask myself – “Why am I reading this?”. The effectiveness of all of your subsequent message is badly degraded because you have destroyed your own credibility. Fail.

    • Quietzapple

      Good Lord!

      Chattels in lounge agree with Tory poster, shock horror!

      If you asked them it would be a straw poll btw.

  20. reniermedia

    Cameron is prettier than Brown and has better teeth – why did Obama win? Because he wasn’t Bush – look out – weary voter about

  21. Jonathan

    Obama wasn’t Bush, but then you know, McCain wasn’t Bush either. Obama had a few things going for him other than mere non-Bushness.

    On the message of the poster, I agree that it wasn’t inconsistent or incoherent. There is nothing inconsistent about saying you will save money but not by cutting the NHS. The real problem with it is that it’s almost entirely uninformative, since it doesn’t say how he’ll do it. The slogan identifies a vague problem and rejects a potential solution to that problem. That doesn’t tell us much.

    Someone mentioned the famous “Labour isn’t working” poster. What a difference thirty years make! That poster was in a different class. Its slogan was biting and direct, as well as being quite a good pun. The image was equally biting and direct. It conveyed graphically a single serious failing of the government, which typified all of its failings. It resonated with voters because it spoke to what they already “knew” about the government.

    Compare Cameron’s posters. There isn’t the slightest wit or bite to the slogan. The image is obviously an attempt to connect personally to the voter: by looking the voter in the eye, addressing them in what appears to be an informal, homely, light environment, Cameron portrays himself as an honest, straightforward person. But the problem is that people don’t really believe that Cameron is honest and straightforward; look at how much people still talk about the cycling/being followed by limousine incident, even though it happened only once, years ago. People remember that because it reinforces the impression they have of Cameron, whether it be a fair impression or not. The poster obviously seeks to overcome this, but it doesn’t really succeed, partly because the image isn’t very convincing (as has been pointed out, he has no identifiable expression on his face, the hair and skin are too obviously airbrushed, and the whole “suit without a tie” look screams “politician trying to be sincere” – or possibly “City boy drinking on a Friday night” – because no-one outside Westminster or the City ever dresses like that, and the whole “informal suit”, too-perfect hair, and conservatory setting also reinforce the toffiness impression), and partly because the slogan doesn’t give us any direct, honest truth about the state of the country or Cameron’s own policies. If it told us what he *will* do rather than what he *won’t* then it might have a bit of believability about it, but as it is, it fails on pretty much every count: oomph, reinforcing voters’ existing beliefs, credibility, likeability. If Cameron wins the election it won’t be because his advertising was as good as Thatcher’s, that’s for sure.

  22. Jonathan

    Oh, also, “begging the question” is a logical fallacy. It means to assume the thing that you’re arguing for as part of the argument for it (so, in effect, to argue that something is true just because it is true – not a very convincing strategy). It is not the same thing as “raising the question”. I don’t know why “begging the question” has recently become widely used to mean “raising the question”.

  23. lilythesnake

    A choice between this and Gordon Brown – Cameron wins every time. Enough of this creepy, lying, spendthrift Brown, lets try something new, it can’t be any worse.

  24. 4ndy

    You might find it interesting to note this traitorous little scrote voted for the war in iraq, and given any authority he would likely try to lead the country into further needless Wars of Terror in Iran, Venezuela and any other freedom-loving nation that tries to remove the shackles of the World Bank slavers. All the while his puppeteers would be staging more bogus ‘terrorist attacks’ to justify their right-denying legislation until you can’t walk down the street without being scanned or shot.

    Do the world a favour if an election comes round, don’t vote for any of the LibLabConmen, who now all take their policies from Demos. We need change, but none of these buggers will tell you what ‘change’ they want, because it involves further enslaving you and lining their pockets by turning a pseudo-democracy into a vicious police state, which they already have most of the pieces in place for.
    It’s completely true that there isn’t a lot of difference between the 3 biggest parties, but that doesn’t justify voting for one instead of the other, there are complete alternatives, indeed the whole parliamentary system is a sham!

    If you ever want this world or even just this country to be free, first you all need to realise the biggest Con, money is debt, just google it; you’ll see that banks counterfeit so much money every day, that the pound is now worthless.

    Next you need to realise that there are better ways of organising society than a parliament who are all in the banks’ back pocket.

    Finally you have to see that hope is not all lost, that you are having an illusion spun around you and you can say NO to this system any time you want, starting with their unlawful taxes.

    Keep up to date with all the real news on


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