The world and his dog linked this week to James Forsyth’s Spectator piece about the reasons for this remarkable Tory backslide: now only five or six points ahead in most polls, David Cameron’s Conservatives are getting very worried indeed. (William Hague dismissed the idea the party were planning for a hung parliament on BBC News this afternoon, but there was fear in his widened eyes.) What Forsyth presented was a Tory command paralysed by a division between irreconcilable factions, and a leader unwilling to choose between them. Everyone in the inner circle, it seems, wants to be a in charge of strategy. This is resulting in a non-strategy – but perhaps not one without purpose.
And so to the revealed Tory slogan: Vote for Change. Whatever your political allegiance, this empty motto must surely sink any heart you have left for this election campaign. ‘Vote for Change’ – unlike, for instance, Barack Obama’s call to transformation, ‘Hope’ – doesn’t just meaning nothing; it is dangerously vague. Obama’s detractors last year scoffed that ‘hope’ was an abstract noun, entirely divorced from actual policy detail. This was never true – hope became such a potent frame for 2008’s presidential election because it obliquely referred to the rejected nihilism of the Bush years, the guttering of Liberty’s flame, the failure of the American ideal on the world stage. ‘Vote for Change’, on the other hand, cannot be effective shorthand in this way – change for what? The slogan encapsulates not the voters’ deepest desires, but the Tories’ deep uncertainty.
Damian Thompson thinks it’s all about Dave’s unlikeability factor; Peter Oborne reckons the answer lies in going on the attack; Tim Montgomerie, whose political radar has been all over the place in recent weeks, has a ten-point plan. But Montgomerie’s ‘deploy Hague and talk about immigration’ stuff, and Oborne’s insistent that “the Tory vision for government is darkly realistic”, is the sort of right-wing axe-grinding that could do the party real damage; it will open them up further to Labour’s ‘take a second look’ line. Confoundingly for the Tory leadership, the other way forward is to obfuscate. To which end, Hague tried to make an argument today at the party’s Spring conference that, “In Brighton this weekend we present the choice: five more years of Gordon Brown’s tired Government making things worse. Or David Cameron and the Conservatives with the energy, leadership and values to get the country moving.”
The problem – but perhaps also the strategy – is that the Tories still haven’t defined what those values are, or precisely why and how the country is moving in the wrong direction. Cameron uses words like ‘modern’ and ‘radical’; but, Labour must and will ask the electorate, what does he think they mean? In an absence of real definition, the electorate are assuming – perhaps rightly – that they are not ones they would recognise.