In May last year, I wrote about the competing platforms of Tories and Labour that “Cameron’s narrative may not yet have sunk to the roots of discourse. But, barring a credible alternative, it assuredly will.” In a (slightly ropey) article by Andy Beckett in today’s G2, John Curtice is quoted as saying, “The Tories never did ‘seal the deal’. Their poll share was never much above 40%. In the winter of 1978-9 [when Thatcher was close to power], they were at 50%. Under Cameron, the lead [over Labour] has been primarily a function of the unpopularity of the government.” So in 10 months, Cameron’s Conservatives have repeatedly failed to reach those roots.
Brown’s Labour Party, on the other hand, have particularly in recent weeks defined their terms. Prudence, she of stalwart companionship, has returned to Brown’s side, and his government will go to the electorate on a ‘steady as she goes’ pitch: Labour won’t act precipitately, governed by anti-state ideology; they will maintain continuity; they are not risky. This is a potent argument in times of economic uncertainty, and doubly so when the opposition has been subject to scrutiny and been left wanting. As David Blackburn has noted (again somewhat ropily – the commentariat find themselves in uncertain waters), Cameron and Osborne no longer enjoy the confidence of the electorate. Their failure decisively to win that argument that was being had as long ago as early summer last year is now having its effect.
Indeed, Alex Barker at the FT has gone as far to suggest that it is Cameron who’s losing it for the Tories – an unthinkable position even six months ago. This is premature, of course – despite poor Tory numbers even in the marginals, Labour are far from a winning position. More important is the Tories similar failure to claim the top place on the podium; the Cameroons, like the Blairites before them, bestride their party on the basis of their winning ways. Labour may not win; but if Cameron also fails to win, if the election results in a hung parliament or a slim Tory majority, he may not be long for the leadership. Tories, similar in this it would seem to the electorate, do not love him.
If Labour’s alternative continues to be unpalatable, it has at least been established. The steady-as-she-goes message, and the similarly minded budget, aims to establish a blank-slate parity just as the campaign begins. This would be a not inconsiderable achievement, and an indictment of the Tory reliance on their illusory momentum; and it is no longer a Mandelsonian pipe dream.