All to Play For as Cameron Wobbles

For two years, a Conservative victory looked to be a done deal — then the polls narrowed. Are the voters having second thoughts?

Features Politics

I cannot remember a general election whose result was harder to call than the one that is almost upon us. For months — or rather for years (ever since, in fact, the bloom first came off Gordon Brown’s premiership within a very short time of his coming to office) — it seemed to be an open-and-shut case. The Conservatives were going to win and the only question was the size of the party’s majority. Was Labour facing “a wipe-out” — as happened in recent times to a Progressive Conservative government in Canada — or would Gordon Brown (as what the late Roy Jenkins used to call “a tail-end Charlie Prime Minister”) simply go the way of poor Jim Callaghan in May 1979? He also, you may recall, “bottled” an election which he might well have won in the Micawber-like hope that something would turn up — or, as we used to put it at the dawn of the Blair Age that “things could only get better”. In fact, in the winter of 1978-9 they got steadily worse, and Callaghan, like Brown until only a month or so ago, found himself facing the inevitability of defeat. The Brown government, I used regularly to proclaim on TV and radio, had “passed the point of no return” — and nothing could save it. The electorate had made up its mind, and that was that.

It sounded plausible enough when I used to give that as my reading of the situation, and in a way it still does. To win a fourth successive electoral victory is a high hurdle for any party and it is all-too-likely to come a cropper in attempting such a feat. John Major, after all, only just got over the bar in 1992, and there must have been moments in the years that followed when he wished he had not managed it. There is the additional point that, if four consecutive periods in office is not good for any particular political party, then it is a great deal worse for democracy itself. If our society, “broken” or not, is to remain even roughly at peace with itself, it is bound to require a change of government at regular (not too great) intervals.

Oddly enough, politicians themselves tend to understand that. “There are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea-change in politics,” Callaghan once famously remarked while being driven around Parliament Square just before the 1979 election. “It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of. I suspect there is now such a sea-change — and it is for Mrs Thatcher.” That, it seemed to me until a few weeks ago, was the only realistic position for Brown to take up if he wished his government to die with its dignity intact. Its defeat was written in the stars and there was nothing he could do about it.

When did I first begin to have second thoughts? I suppose nagging away at the back of my mind there had always been one doubt. If 13 years of Labour rule were due to come to an end in May 2010, then where was the air of anticipation and excitement that had certainly marked Tony Blair’s march to power in 1997? It certainly wasn’t detectable in the political atmosphere of 2009-10, but for months I managed to explain its absence away to myself by invoking the general air of cynicism about politics, to say nothing of the various scandals (MPs’ expenses etc) that had affected all parties in the run-up to polling day.

Nevertheless, the doubt did continue to nag — and I fully understood what even David Cameron’s closest supporters meant when they said that it remained for him to “close the deal”. Somehow, for all his charm and appeal (and his undoubted success in “detoxing” the Tory brand), he just did not command the stature and authority that Blair seemed to do back in 1997. Probably this should have led me to conclude that, despite all the evidence pointing to a Tory victory, one vital ingredient was missing. The voters may have wanted out of impatience or exasperation to toss out a Labour government but they gave no sign of being anything like so sure about what they wanted to put in its place. Was not the truth of the matter that, if the Conservative polling lead necessarily looked pretty wide, even its durability could not banish the suspicion that it was also distinctly shallow?

Curiously, the first time that suspicion took root in my mind had nothing to do with Cameron or his Shadow Cabinet colleagues. The Sun, you may recall, had first declared its conversion to the Conservative cause last September (on the same day that it was also reporting Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference) and a month or so later it braced itself to deliver what it plainly took to be a knock-out blow. Although he does not attend military funerals, the Prime Minister, like his predecessor, has always made it a rule to write to the bereaved families of service personnel who have lost their lives, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Sun, of course, knew this and, having presumably been offered it by a reader, reproduced one such hand-written letter — complete with mis-spellings and ink smudges — on its front page along with the resentful comments of the recipient. The next day, Downing Street put a phone call through to the woman concerned so that the Prime Minister might offer a personal apology for any apparent, though unintended, discourtesy. But the Sun was already a jump ahead of the game. Anticipating what the Downing Street response might be, it had arranged for the incoming call to be recorded and was thus able to take a second bite at the cherry by offering its readers the transcript of the phone conversation between a contrite PM and a still indignant parent. I freely admit that I had at the time no notion at all as to how this bizarre incident would play with public opinion but I found the ultimate outcome both refreshing and reassuring.

There remains, it seems, a basic instinct for fairness among the British people, and the general popular reaction appears to have been that on this occasion the Sun had gone too far. It was not just the element of entrapment, though the recording of the phone call in the US would have been a criminal offence. Equally objectionable was the pillorying of the PM for his handwriting. You do not have to be a walking encyclopaedia on Gordon Brown to know that, as the result of a teenage rugby injury, he lost the sight of one eye, which causes him to write with a thick-nib felt pen that he does not always wield with much skill or grace. Hence the smudges and the crossings-out on the letter that may or may not have disguised actual spelling mistakes.

It was the great socialist orator, Aneurin Bevan, who in his resignation speech in 1951 reminded the House of Commons that the smallest of pebbles can cause the heaviest of avalanches. The incident involving the Prime Minister and the Sun, though trivial enough in itself, is, I fancy, one illustration of that. As a result of it, Brown was able to break free from the victim status that he had occupied ever since his very first months in No 10. The average citizen simply formed the view that enough was enough: like everyone else, the Labour leader might have his weaknesses but recognising those was not at all the same thing as declaring an open season for his persecution. It is even possible to argue that Brown gains from being painted warts-and-all. Thanks in part to Andrew Rawnsley’s recent book, The End of the Party (see dialogue, p.32), he at least comes across as an authentic flesh-and-blood character, whereas there is something undeniably plastic about both David Cameron and the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. And it is in this area, of course, that there lies the other great difficulty over making any forecast about the result of the now imminent general election. For the first time, the three principal party leaders will appear head-to-head in three separate 90-minute TV debates. They will, I suspect, turn out to be a shade boring. But it is foolish to deny that by introducing this presidential element into our parliamentary system we have radically rearranged our traditional electoral customs and practices. This time it really will be a personality contest, with the differences between the parties reflected not so much by policies or manifestos as by our individual perceptions of three contrasting characters.

The hope naturally is that this will have its effect on voter turnout, with the percentage of those voting recovering at least a little from the low-point (hovering around 60 per cent) recorded at the last two general elections. I would not myself care to predict an outcome of increased voter participation: if the debates, as I fear they may, turn out to be uniformly tedious they could, I suppose, have precisely the opposite effect. But one thing I do already sense at least in my fingertips. The five-and-a-half hour TV ordeal to which the serious-minded among us will subject ourselves must, I think, reduce the danger of a hung Parliament. We shall, after all, be reaching our conclusions on identical evidence and it would be astonishing if something like a collective judgment does not take shape. I have always myself anyway been slightly sceptical of predictions of electoral contests destined to end in stalemate. It very rarely happens (the last time in 1974) and, while the increased number of Liberal Democrat MPs — 63 in the outgoing Parliament — makes it theoretically more likely, the more practical consideration has to be that, by some form of osmosis or whatever, the electorate tends to make up its mind decisively one way or the other.

My own personal hunch is that all is still to play for. Despite an unhappy few weeks — the botched airbrushed poster of Cameron, some slippage in his own performances at Prime Minister’s Questions and, perhaps above all, the incredibly crassly handled affair of Lord Ashcroft and his tax undertakings — the Conservatives must still be favourites to win. It may well be that all we have witnessed over the past few weeks is a wobble and that the party will regain its equilibrium well before polling day. The LibDems have certainly struck lucky by achieving equality of treatment in the TV debates, though Clegg will probably still have to demonstrate that he is more than a lad asking to be sent on a man’s errand. 

As for Brown and Labour, considering where they had to come from, it is no mean feat for them to have put themselves back in contention — and that they can claim already to have done.