Feeling their pain.

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Cameron's Big Mistake

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Britain's elections are just a week away, and psephologists and bookmakers agree: It's an unpredictable mess, with the most likely outcome a minority Labour government backed by Scottish nationalists. For this state of affairs, the ruling Conservative Party has itself to blame.

Britain's EU Choice

By any measure, Prime Minister David Cameron should be well ahead. He has a strong economic story to tell; in Labour leader Ed Miliband, he has an opponent most Brits can't picture as their leader and who, on Thursday night, was savaged by a television studio audience that distrusted him on the economy. Tory donors accuse Cameron of running a lackluster campaign -- to which he shoots back that he's "bloody lively." But the root problem is different.

If Cameron is ousted on May 7, it will be because he paid too much attention to his party's Europe-obsessed backbenchers for the past two years, instead of trying to change Conservatives’ image as a "nasty party," ruled for and by the nation's monied elites.

Politicians usually get one big brand-making issue that defines them. They can nibble at other things and make gains, but it's the central narrative by which they live or die. The one Cameron began with in 2010 had to do with a new, more modern, more open-minded Conservative Party that would rescue the U.K. economy from the financial crisis. These new-look Tories would be fiscally responsible, but also fair. Here's what Cameron said in a 2009 speech:

The progressive thing to do, the responsible thing to do is to get a grip on the debt but in a way that brings the country together instead of driving it apart. That means showing leadership at the top which is why we will cut ministers' pay and freeze it for a parliament.

It means showing that we're all in this together, which is why we'll freeze public sector pay for all but the one million lowest paid public sector workers for one year to help protect jobs.

And it means showing that the rich will pay their share which is why for now the 50p tax rate will have to stay and child trust funds for those on middle and higher incomes will have to go.

Fast forward two years, though, and Cameron's defining issue had switched -- to the twinned monsters of Europe and immigration. This wasn't the path he wanted, but, spooked by the rising popularity of the U.K. Independence Party, he let his backbenchers scare him into a narrative he couldn't control. He promised a referendum on whether the U.K. should pull out of the European Union, and became bogged down in efforts to meet an undeliverable pledge to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands (it was almost 300,000 last year).

Cameron should have kept to his original idea that when it comes to fixing the U.K. economy, "we're all in this together." Had he persuaded Britons that he took the tough decisions necessary to put the U.K. on a sustainable path to recovery, and did so in a way that spread the pain fairly, I suspect he'd be doing a lot better now.

That message, however, would have taken constant cultivation: Cameron is a graduate of Eton College, a boarding school where the boys wear tails and their parents pay more than 32,000 pounds, or $49,000, a year for the privilege. Eton defines what the English mean when they say "toff." On top of that, despite healthy growth numbers over the past year, average real wages in the U.K. are still lower than they were before the financial crisis. Voters aren't feeling the feel-good factor.

Instead, Cameron's agenda for the last two years before the election has been dominated by Europe and immigration, including such bad ideas as driving mobile advertisements around parts of London telling illegal immigrants to "Go Home or Face Arrest." How better to say "nasty party"? 

Given that the EU never shows up among the top voter concerns, it was always going to be a sideshow for this campaign. Immigration is a priority for many but can't win an election, because there's no genuine strategy to radically reduce it that most Britons would find acceptable. Support for UKIP has dwindled as May 7 approaches. 

Now Cameron is resorting to grand last-minute gestures to get his economic message across, in ways that may undermine his reputation for fiscal prudence, as Bloomberg News's Svenja O'Donnell reports (and Tory grandee Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, agrees). 

First he promised an extra 8 billion pounds for the National Health Service, and then he said he'd give more renters in subsidized housing the right to buy their flats at discounted rates. Most recently, Cameron has pledged to pass a law prohibiting rises in income, social security or VAT taxes over the next five-year parliament. 

These ideas are designed to make swing voters feel the Tories really are in it together with them. But it isn't clear where those 8 billion pounds would come from; the right-to-buy extension may exacerbate the U.K.'s housing shortage; and attempting to tie the treasury's hands on taxes when circumstances in the global economy could change seems unwise if genuine, and irrelevant if not. 

Far from driving home the Conservatives’ advantage over Labour on economic responsibility, this approach has led the Institute for Fiscal Studies -- an accepted referee on campaign math -- to conclude that none of the parties' numbers add up. 

Cameron may still win by scaring voters over the prospect of a Labour government dependent on the support of the Scottish Nationalist Party, something Miliband tried to head off on Thursday night by pledging not to make a deal with them. If the bookies are right, though, and the Conservative party doesn't form the next government, Tory backbenchers will defenestrate Cameron and blame him for a victory lost. And it will be because he listened to them when he shouldn't have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net