Unusually, perhaps, this was a political week which revolved around the poor. Afghanistan rumbled in the background, but The Sun’s depressing campaign against Gordon Brown’s handwriting seems largely to have passed through without making much running. Andreas Whittam Smith in The Independent tried to link Brown with another hapless Prime Minister, but his piece had an unsatisfying pithiness to it which suggested how tenuous was the link. Undoubtedly, Brown is like John Major a (publicly) undemonstrative politician, but his problems are otherwise very different; one of them does not appear to be the consequences of his handwriting on his profile in Tabloidland.
Indeed, this has been a halfway decent week for Labour – the victory in the Glasgow East by-election surprised many in its scale, if not in the win itself. No one really expected Labour to lose, but the share of the (admittedly low) vote, and the majority, was very healthy. Again in The Independent, John Curtice made a good argument that the victory in this most deprived of constituencies cannot easily be extrapolated – but this is the usual way for by-elections anywhere. Tuesday’s Populus poll, discussed by The Times’s Peter Riddell here, gave the Tories a majority of just two. In part, this is a reaction – from those working class voters again – against David Cameron’s reneging on the EU referendum pledge; but it also put Labour at the top of its recent range, too. Even the increasingly centre-right Politics Home’s panel aren’t making it so certain a thing anymore.
A turning of the tide? Obviously not. Peter Mandelson’s coming installation as ‘information minister’ is proof enough that the government still feels itself to be on the back foot. Rather, the closer Cameron gets to appearing a dead cert, the more scrutiny his thin proposals receive, and thus he slips back down again. Ben Brogan acted as mouthpiece for the Tory right when he wrote a sceptical piece about Cameron’s insufficiently Conservative policy platform, and his paper made it clear in a leader of their own that Cameron needs to go further if he is to seal the deal even with his own supporters.
All this followed a widely reported Hugo Young lecture in which the Tory leader went on about the big idea which has always been at the heart of his leadership – empowering the voluntary sector as a way of reducing the role and size of the state. Predictably, Polly Toynbee wasn’t convinced, but nor was the centre-left but sympathetic and astute Steve Richards. With the left and the right both unhappy, it’s probably true that Cameron’s lecture was aimed precisely at not saying anything at all. Certainly his big talk has always been light on policy details – how can the state get smaller when it will need to supervise ever more disparate agents? Or is the idea that a Tory government will simply leave them to their own devices in a sort of enlightened laissez faire policy? No one knows, and that’s his problem. Johann Hari’s article from last week (worth linking to again) remains foremost in my mind.
The point of it all, as Alistair Campbell argued (before being distracted by a very clever diversionary personal attack from Michael Portillo) on This Week on Thursday, Cameron is winning by default. Labour attacks feel desperate and not a little pitiful, but it is easily within their grasp to prevent a thumping majority – or even a Tory win. After all, Labour politicians took both of the big prizes at the annual Spectator Awards – Politician and Parliamentarian of the year – which must mean they’re doing something right, surely?