Monday, 5 April 2010

The Days of Whine and Skirmishes…

There’s an election coming – it might even be triggered by Gordon Brown tomorrow – but even if it isn’t, the pre-campaign skirmishing has reached a crescendo in the past 72 hours.

It’s been a bad week for Labour, or rather a bad twelve days since the Budget. Caught between a financial rock and an electoral hard place, Alastair Darling not only said very little but managed to annoy a lot of people by saying it or not saying it. As has been the tradition in recent times, the Budget went down badly, helped, it must be said, by a blizzard of negative spin from the media and the pro-Conservative blogosphere.

The “Chancellors Debate” last Monday was widely viewed as a “win” for Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesman, and the fact that the Sun, which usually ignores the Lib Dems, has turned its fire on the party this morning, suggests the Conservatives have concerns on that flank.

This weekend, we have had the “Gene Hunt” poster, a Labour poster depicting David Cameron as the eponymous anti-hero of the “Life on Mars” and “Ashes to Ashes” series. This appears to have backfired as the Tory spinners immediately claimed “Hunt” as one of their own and the character, although deeply unpleasant, has resonated with those in the electorate who have been convinced by media such as the Daily Mail that institutions such as the Police are drowning in bureaucracy and political correctness.

Finally, comments made by Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling in support of a couple of B&B owners who refused accommodation to a homosexual couple, exploded into an all-out row. Grayling is the weakest of the senior Conservative spokesmen and my view is that were he facing someone other than  Alan Johnson, he would be in deep trouble. As it is, he will survive this but I suspect his long-term future in a Conservative administration is limited.

On top of this, we have the first signs of the oncoming snowstorm of polls. Having closed the gap to as little as two points in the run-up to the Budget, Labour has lost ground again and is back to around 30%. The Conservatives have recovered from their flirtation with the mid-30s and are again around 38-39% while the Liberal Democrats are steady at around 20% having polled 23% with ICM earlier in the week. We will now see tiny, statistically insignificant moves hyped into huge swings of opinion, starting probably tomorrow.

The fundamentals haven’t changed. The Conservatives have money and resources and will deploy them in the seats they need to win (and probably elsewhere too). Only in the ground war on a local basis will they be out-fought by Liberal Democrat local activists. The Tory activists in East Ham are a pretty poor bunch – polite and respectful but as green as grass. I was canvassed on Saturday and held two of them up for ten minutes. I wish I had had those kind of resources when I was an Agent !!

Labour are in desperate trouble and they must know it – the debates are probably the last opportunity for Brown to convince with gravitas but the “mood for change” narrative is incredibly hard to fight. I’m far from convinced about David Cameron as you will know. He’s a “nice guy” (which is why the Gene Hunt poster simply doesn’t work) but, like Blair, he doesn’t like being unpopular or on the wrong side of the argument whereas I think Margaret Thatcher was the opposite – she revelled in her unpopularity and hated being liked.

When things get tough as the fiscal tightening bites and the public sector cuts kick in, Cameron will face the kind of pressure that Brown has faced since the autumn of 2007 and we’ll see then what kind of man he is.

For now, as the campaign proper dawns, he can enjoy the next month. He and his party are going to win, not by much I suspect, but by enough. In two or three years time, he may need to remember the mood of April and May 2010 because that may be as good as it gets.

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