The weeks grind on, and the election looms closer. Most people who follow politics at all realise how much hangs on the outcome. And yet was there ever a greater sense of ennui and disengagement?
Margaret Thatcher outside 10 Downing Street, May 4, 1979. Her speech made reference to St Francis’s prayer (see Laura Freeman, "An Archival Treasure Trove", elsewhere this issue)
Both main parties seemingly subscribe to the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid.” Of course, it often is. Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 after the “Winter of Discontent” had put the cap on years of Labour economic mismanagement. But she increased her majority in 1983 even though unemployment had soared and the recovery was barely established. Voters, swayed by her resolute leadership in the Falklands War, trusted her more than they did Michael Foot and Labour. Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 with a record majority despite several years of impressive growth under the Conservatives. They would have lost after 18 years of running the country even if they had sent free hampers to every voter.
This election campaign has been dominated by two competing economic viewpoints. George Osborne offers steadiness and reliability. The job is half done, and can only be completed by the Tories. There will have to be more carefully targeted cuts because that is the price we must pay for long-term economic stability. Labour’s response is that the proposed cuts are both excessive and unnecessary (the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is much readier to pour scorn on Mr Osborne’s plans than he is to reveal his own) and in any case the still fragile recovery has been needlessly delayed by too much austerity.
My own sympathies in this rather tedious Punch and Judy exchange lie firmly with Mr Osborne. Nonetheless, the Tories can scarcely pretend their arguments are making headway with undecided voters, of whom there are surprisingly many. (Ipsos MORI recently claimed that nearly half those who say they are certain to vote on May 7 have not yet made up their minds.) One opinion poll suggests the Tories are edging ahead, the next that Labour is fighting back. Conservative MPs and the right-wing Press are becoming nervy. Blame is being increasingly directed towards Lynton Crosby, the jovial Australian political guru masterminding the Tory campaign. He is reported to be reassuring the troops that it will still be all right on the night. If it isn’t, he will no doubt be retreating permanently to wherever he resides in Australia—unless Boris Johnson should summon back his old mentor to run his campaign to be leader of the Conservative Party.
In most respects it’s pretty astonishing the Tories aren’t doing better. Whether or not you believe too much austerity has delayed recovery, Britain’s economy is plainly far more buoyant than that of almost every other developed country, and we may soon be sending food parcels to the French and Italians. Polls suggest Mr Osborne is more admired and trusted than the evasive Mr Balls. As for David Cameron, he must be the luckiest man alive in having Ed Miliband as his opponent. (God alone knows why he is too “frit” to engage with him in a one-on-one television debate.) The Prime Minister’s personal ratings have been consistently better than the Labour leader’s. It’s hardly surprising that so many of Mr Miliband’s own foot soldiers should be privately despairing of him.
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