Like the Labour conference last week, it was hard to get that worked up about this; the Tories are putting a brave face on it but the delegates I saw had the look of condemned men/women. Brown is walking away with the big prize and suddenly all Dave Cameron's careful work over the past two years looks very much in vain. A come-from-behind win for Dave in the forthcoming election is certainly possible - Ted Heath managed it in 1970 after being similarly written off by the pundits - but the electoral arithmetic still works against the Tories even after boundary changes. Dave would probably have to be 6 points in front to get an overall majority - he will likely start the campaign around 6 points behind. Even in 1992 (the election when the polls got it most wrong in recent times) they weren't out to that extent.
The new policy platform unveiled so far has offered thin pickings - George Osborne's pledge to raise the Inheritance Tax threshold to £1m will be popular but isn't going to swing many votes on its own, it's just not important enough an issue for the vast majority of people, despite the Daily Express's best efforts. Likewise cuts in stamp duty. The Conservatives still face a huge problem in trying to knit together the outputs from their six policy review groups into a coherent manifesto - it's not so much that the policies themselves will be incoherent, because Labour's 2005 manifesto (a model of vacuity if ever there was any) proved that you can win an election without having any policies. It's more that the whole rhetorical thrust of the two major policy reviews, Goldsmith/Gummer on 'quality of life' and John Redwood on 'competitiveness', are 180 degrees opposed to each other and that's a very large crack to paper over. Goldsmith and Gummer say - quite rightly - put the environment first, whereas Redwood says fly as many planes as possible and f*** the environment. How is Dave gonna square this off? Most likely he will fudge it somehow, but it's very hard to see a coherent policy platform emerging from these reviews at short notice.
And all the time there are senile senior figures sniping in the sidelines. This week's Spectator has a piece by Norman Tebbit lamenting the lack of 'popular' (i.e. quasi-fascist, in Tebbit-speak) policies among the Cameronite modernisers. Tebbit is now - or maybe always has been - so crazy that he thinks that all the Tories' current problems stem from Mrs Thatcher being 'conned' into joining the ERM by the 'Europhile Tories' who were apparently 'pulling strings behind the scenes.' Real reds-under-the-bed conspiracy theory stuff, and sad to see from a guy who once seemed pretty sharp, even if he was a complete wanker. Next we find Malcolm Rifkind saying 'a snap election would be an outrage' because governments with a working majority in the House of Commons should serve a full term. Presumably then Malc was saying the same thing in 1983 and 1987 when Maggie went to the country? She still had a full year left to run, after all. Also, isn't Malcolm's outburst rather at odds with Dave's insistence that Gordon call an election immediately when he became leader in June?
It's this kind of inconsistency that's going to make it surprisingly easy for Labour to fight the campaign. They just need to point to the endless selection of hypocrites, duffers and madmen in the ranks (and also some of them on the Tory front bench) and Dave's credibility will most likely evaporate. Of course, if the Tories wanted to do themselves and the country a favour there are several worthwhile and progressive points they could campaign on, for example:
- the transformation of Britain into a low carbon economy, in line with the Goldsmith/Gummer blueprint, and constrasting strongly with Labour's rather faltering steps in this direction.
- enshrining civil liberties and halting the steady drift towards a police state (which, of course, Mrs T started).
- getting rid of the Stalinist 'target culture' in public services, substituting instead a reliance on competent and well-motivated professionals monitored by democratically elected oversight boards (or something like that anyway).