It required a miracle for Gordon Brown to find an opponent so incompetent that Labour would not be comprehensively booted from office this year. Yet in David Cameron just such a magnificent incompetent appears to have been found.
To say that Brown has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy is to grotesquely understate the case. He has taken the country beyond bankruptcy. The government is borrowing £600 million a day. Our national debt is now riskier than Italy’s.
And yet the polls show that the Conservatives may not win this election. At best, they might arrive in a hung Parliament or scrape a majority so narrow as to be unworkable. It is worth reminding ourselves of something. This is what friends of the Conservative party have got for five years of “detoxifying” insults, sustained political cowardice and a leadership-led abandonment of every issue of grassroots importance. This is all that has been achieved by those Tory backbenchers who have silently gone along with the Cameronians only because they thought it would finally gain them power.
Cameron and his colleagues have spent the last five years assiduously antagonising everyone who should be well disposed towards them and attempting to woo those who would never like them. They have been chasing unimportant and ungettable endorsements from the Guardian while alienating their sympathisers. I recently spent an unhappy evening with a senior Tory who dismissed one potentially friendly institution after another. The City’s criticisms of Osborne? “Who cares about the City?” he asked. The Telegraph‘s criticisms of Cameron? “I don’t bother with the Telegraph anymore.” And so on.
If the Cameron clique had spent more time listening to their friends they might be preparing for power. As it is, they deserve to lose. Instead of setting out a principled manifesto, they have competed in the language and politics of their opponents even as that language and politics has been utterly exposed and recognised as moribund.
In the week when Brown was forced to say that he didn’t physically assault his staff, the Conservative lead in the polls actually fell. It is worth reflecting on this a moment. The political opponent who has put your grandchildren-to-be in debt for life is having to publicly state that he doesn’t assault his staff. As I said to some Tories that week: “What more are you hoping for? Harriet Harman to be accused of embezzlement and rape?” It is a situation that would be funny if the situation facing the country were not so tragic.
As it is, whoever manages to scrape a majority in Parliament, the country is heading into a period of financial crisis that the politicians have ensured we are uniquely ill-prepared for. Since the beginning of the global recession, the British people have been cushioned. Because of its fear of looking bad before the election, the Labour government has continued to spend borrowed money like a drunk on borrowed time.
Cameron’s first campaign poster of the year “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS” demonstrated that the trend would continue. This election was being fought not on who could disentangle us from the terrible welfare-bankrupted state that we were in, but instead on who could most completely maintain the status quo that helped get us in this ruinous situation in the first place.
But another message was being given out more subtly with that campaign. After all, why ring-fence health spending and not education? Why health-spending and not defence? The impression given is that cuts will be made to things that people wouldn’t miss anyway. And though there are certainly plenty of cuts that would not be felt — not least the £1 billion this government has spent on advertising with our money — the meaningful cuts will have to be felt. That means considerable cuts to front-line public services.
This would have been the time for a responsible opposition to be honest with the people — to explain that we are going to have to feel this recession if we are going to get through it.
When the repercussions of all this kick in, the post-election realities the public will quite rightly feel that no one warned them that it was going to hurt. Taxpayers who thought their best security would be in property have little idea of what the effect will be when we finally see the collapse of the housing-price bubble that has been sustained over the last two years. We were given the impression all this could be done painlessly.
So which box do we tick? When I was at university there was always an option on the ballot for student-election posts to “Re-Open Nominations”. “Ron”, to which it was always shortened, was popular if the candidates were all rubbish. Unfortunately, we don’t have “Ron” at this election. If we did, I suspect he would romp to victory.