Policy chaos. MPs in a panic. A rattled prime minister, with fear in his eyes.
It’s been a dangerous couple of days for the Labour party.
Conference season is a game of two halves. Attack. Counterattack. You roll out your programme. They hit it. You assess where the blows have fallen hardest. Recalibrate. Then you roll out your programme again.
Not this year. By accident, and by design, the Tories have played to different rules.
This should have been the week that Cameron and co. blew some sizeable holes in “Red Ed” and the “new generation”. Instead, they spent the best part of their conference blowing holes in each other.
Their semi-disintegration on child benefit was selfishly dispiriting. I couldn’t weep for the single mothers about to lose their benefits. Or the families facing hardship. All I could think was: “did we really lose an election to this shower”?
How long did David Cameron have to prepare himself and his party for this moment? How many months have we heard the grinding mantras: “tough times”, “difficult decisions”, “painful choices”. And what happens? The first whiff of grapeshot from the Mail and Mumsnet and they head for the hills. Forget about “Red Ed”. Say hello to “Yellow Dave”.
Cameron’s got form on this. When the election that never was still remained the election that might be, he hastily ditched his compassionate Conservatism for some low tax, high dudgeon Thatcherism. When the 1922 Committee brandished their shooting sticks at his reform proposals he tiptoed quietly away. And when the angry mothers of Tunbridge Wells came knocking, his instinctive reaction was to hide under the sheets and refuse to answer the door.
The line of attack that opened up this week wasn’t Cameron the Slasher. It was Cameron the Bottler. We should exploit it.
But the clouds of panic that rolled over the Tories are in danger of obscuring the fundamentals. We entered this week politically vulnerable. A new and untested leader. A front-bench team in transition. Uncertainties about our own direction, policy and positioning. Yet, just when we should have been treading carefully, we glimpsed the red rag that was child benefit. And we charged.
Set aside his appalling political mismanagement. On the fundamental principle, Cameron is right. In a time of austerity, the wealthiest should shoulder the largest burden. By all means, let’s debate whether those on incomes above £44,000 are rich or part of the ‘squeezed middle’. But the political reality is that we are going to have to support some reduction in benefit levels. And if we aren’t going to support cuts for higher rate tax payers, which ones are we going to support?
We are also on shaky ground with our defence of universality. In a time of plenty it represents a noble principle. At a time when the axe is falling deeper and harder than ever before it seems like dogma.
Cuts that target mothers will always be emotive. It is to our credit that our instinctive response is to resist them. But a party that fights in the last ditch to defend the right of Samantha Cameron, Jordan and Victoria Beckham to receive state subsidised benefits is a party that has picked the wrong fight.
Even as Tory ministers stampeded around the Birmingham Symphony Hall losing their heads, it was still possible to glimpse battle lines being drawn. George Osborne is a man who keeps his head, though his sinister and ghostly demeanour give the impression that he would be more comfortable carrying it under his arm. But his attack on Labour’s historic economic legacy was effective. And it provided a timely reminder that the next election will be won by the party perceived to be most economically competent, not fiscally humane.
The really telling moment, though, came in Cameron’s address. Imagine, in conferences past, if a Tory prime minister had been presented with a new leader of the opposition who was defined, even marginally, to the left. Had the nick name Red Ed. Had secured their election with the overwhelming support of the trade unions. Thatcher would have gone for the jugular. Even Major would have nibbled an index finger. Yet Cameron mentioned it once. And moved on.
Partly it’s tactical: “Leave ‘im Dave. Leave ‘im. ‘e’s not worth it”.
Partly it’s a response to Ed’s effective “you were an optimist once” taunt. Going negative would play directly to that narrative.
But it also represents a massive strategic shift by the Tories. They’re not just making a play for the “squeezed middle”. They’re attempting the wholesale nationalisation of mainstream political opinion.
He might have been expected to push Nick Clegg and the coalition to the margins. Instead, Cameron placed them at the centre of his speech, rhetorically introducing Clegg to the conference with the bashful pride of a teenager introducing a new girlfriend to his mother. I expected a savage personal assault on Blair and Brown and their legacy. But while there were some sharp passages, they were more a critique than an all out political assault. After the Tories’ week of turmoil, Cameron might well have slightly downplayed the emphasis on national government, and framed the election as a Tory win. Instead, he constructed a pedestal high above the partisan fray, and clambered onto it.
To be sure, the view is a precarious one. A single well-aimed kick from Iain Duncan-Smith, Liam Fox or David Davies and he tumbles. The child benefit cuts could become his poll tax in a bugaboo. Nick Clegg could become bored and choose to stay in and wash his hair.
But it also presents difficulties for us. In the same way that Ed Miliband’s “optimism” line built a defensive barrier between himself and the Tories, so Cameron’s call for national unity builds one between us and the Tories. Cameron is effectively using the electorate as a human shield. “An attack on me”, he says, “is an attack on us all”.
This week the reckoning was deferred. The blows did not fall. Our opponents did not take the field. On the surface, we are unscathed. Neither bloodied nor bowed.
A reckoning deferred. Yes. But not for long.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.