"The Chief Whip stormed the moral high ground and dug himself in. So why did I feel unable to follow Michael Gove over the top, as it were?"
How odd to find oneself listening to a speech by the Conservative Chief Whip. That dignitary used to operate behind a façade of impenetrable silence, which was supposed to increase his air of menace. Michael Gove is the first holder of the office to invade, as it were, his own privacy. He was speaking at the launch of Tim Montgomerie’s new outfit, The Good Right, at the Legatum Institute, a think-tank accommodated in a house in Mayfair which feels like a posh hotel: brand new, expensive and deracinated. While looking up its address on the internet to check where it was, I came across a house in the same street for sale with a guide price of £39.5 million.
Gove urged the Conservatives to “affirm that we are warriors for the dispossessed”. Festooned with dialectical weaponry, the Chief Whip stormed the moral high ground and dug himself in. His speech constituted a defence of those commanding heights against all-comers, and especially against any self-righteous, pseudo-progressive socialist who presumes to claim moral superiority over the Conservatives. There’s an election to be fought, and here’s a man ready to take on the sanctimonious Left.
So why did I feel unable to follow Gove over the top, as it were? It’s partly that this kind of conservatism is so hectic, strenuous and utilitarian. Life is presented as a series of obstacles which can only be surmounted if we all work like maniacs. Perhaps for a modern politician, who may hold high office for only a few years, such puritanical dedication is inescapable, but must they inflict their unbalanced work ethic on the rest of us too?
One of the foundations of Western culture is leisure, understood in a high sense; and some of us are weak enough also to hanker, every so often, after the life of a rentier. I confess to having suffered quite frequently from this unheroic feeling ever since leaving university in 1979.
The Conservative Party exists, surely, to defend property as well as to help those who start out in life with nothing. In their electoral programme, the Conservatives do, as it happens, make one immensely expensive concession to this kind of sentiment: they promise to protect the rights of pensioners.
The opinion polls seem, at the time of writing, to have moved very little, and to be stuck at a level where neither of the main parties has a realistic chance of getting an overall majority. At the start of January, I found myself at a lunch of pollsters and other experts, where a sweepstake was organised on the question of how many seats the Tories would end up with. Flown with insolence and wine, and because I expect the Tory campaign to be more formidable than Labour’s and also because I reckon that when people look at the Tory record over the last five years they will conclude that it merits a second term, I shouted “330” before anyone else had a chance to corner the high end of the market.
No one else wanted to corner it. The smart money was on 50 or 60 seats below that. In 2010, the Tories got 306 seats, Labour 258 and the Lib Dems 57. At the beginning of March 2015, Lord Ashcroft gave a presentation of his latest polling which showed the Tories and Labour tied on 272 seats each: a snapshot, he emphasised, rather than a prediction.
But will the campaign change anything? The more the parties try to make what they do as bland as what occurs, or doesn’t occur, in the main hall at a party conference, the less incentive there will be to attend to a word they say. People sense when they are being insulted by being manipulated, and turn away.
The press feels a yearning to overturn these carefully-laid plans. In some ways, the campaign so far has been a struggle between the press, which wants discipline to break down, and the party machines, which are determined to enforce it. In recent months, it has become harder and harder to get politicians to say anything in the slightest bit interesting, because none of them wants to be used as a scapegoat for defeat on May 7. For much of the time, they stay on message by conveying no message at all: a fatuous waste of everyone’s time, and a sad condition for a supposedly free country to find itself in.
Into this vacuum comes a story about Ed Miliband’s two kitchens: he and his wife having apparently negotiated an uneasy compromise whereby they were filmed in a barren little pantry, rather than in the room where their family life actually takes place. It is, in a sense, an absurdly trivial affair. But it also raises the question of whether the Labour leader is willing to be straight with the voters about the kind of person he is. Perhaps no one should aspire to lead a political party who is not prepared to allow television cameras into his or her kitchen.
David Cameron has difficulties about being authentic which are in many ways just as serious: he has pretty much given up shooting. As so often, Alan Cochrane, the Telegraph’s Scottish editor, writes on this subject with an authority that eludes his rivals. In his recently published diaries, Alex Salmond: My Part In His Downfall, Cochrane records a dinner with Cameron:
The title of Cochrane’s diaries appears, unfortunately, to be premature. On May 8 Salmond could well awake to find himself and enough other Nats elected to Westminster to hold the balance of power there. If this happens, they can try to so infuriate the English that we decide we have had enough of being united with the Scots. But it would be an error to imagine that the problem in Scotland is nationalism. The essential problem is socialism. Many voters north of the border are convinced that Tony Blair betrayed socialism and sold out to Thatcherism. This is why Labour became so weak in Scotland that it is now in danger of being reduced to a rump.
Winston Churchill’s third Budget, delivered in 1927, opened with a brilliant salvo of short sentences, in which he displayed not just the courage to face bad news, but his usual relish in doing so: “We are met this afternoon under the shadow of the disasters of last year. The coal strike has cost the taxpayer £30 million. It is not the time to bewail the past. It is the time to pay the bill. It is not for me to apportion the blame. My task is to apportion the burden. I do not assume the role of the impartial judge. I am only the executioner.”
According to British Budgets, a work not given to hyperbole, Churchill proceeded to deliver “two and a half hours of extraordinarily brilliant entertainment”. How he loved being at the centre of things, and what pains he took to hold his listeners’ attention. George Osborne likewise loves being at the centre of things, but one cannot say he acknowledges quite so strong an obligation to entertain us. His occasional jokes during his sixth and probably last Budget did not do much to relieve a tone which for most of the time lacked magnanimity (another Churchillian characteristic), and was instead relentlessly bitter and joyless.
The economy is on the mend. There is a good story to tell about amazing numbers of new jobs being created and prosperity reaching parts of the kingdom which were sunk in depression. But Osborne’s telling of that story was spoiled by his desire to take crack after crack at Labour. I began to suspect that he is not just angry with the Opposition: he is angry with the country, for not turning to the Conservatives in spontaneous gratitude for all the good things the government has done over the past five years.
The Cameroons are convinced they deserve another five years in office. I happen to agree with them, but I don’t think they are yet going the right way about getting a hearing from unconvinced voters who are bored and disgusted by professional politicians. Professionalism is not enough. When it degenerates into expert manipulation, unrelieved by anything in the way of a spontaneous human emotion, it becomes unbearable.
When he rose to reply to the Budget, Ed Miliband did not, unfortunately, sound any more spontaneous than Osborne. Miliband and Cameron had earlier got involved in an exchange of carefully scripted kitchen jokes. Cameron had the best of these: “I feel sorry for the Leader of the Opposition, he literally doesn’t know where his next meal’s coming from.” I believe that in the higher reaches of Labour, it is Ed Balls who has the greatest spontaneity potential, based in part on his heroic willingness to have a go at things he is no good at, such as keeping wicket.
My wife has been campaigning in marginal seats for Labour: most recently in Thurrock, Basildon and Ipswich. She reports that the UKIP vote is softening a bit. One would expect them to get squeezed as the election approaches. But the more robotic and impersonal the behaviour of the main parties, the greater the urge John Bull will feel to show that as a free-born Englishman, he is not prepared to be taken for granted.