by David Talbot
The battle lines for 2015 have begun to be drawn. As Labour’s foot soldiers marched to the beat towards the feted middle ground last week in Manchester, its gun batteries trained their aim onto unfamiliar territory with audacious talk of a Labour “one nation” prime minister. The Tories, retreating in disarray, have receded to their ideological redoubt, and Labour skirmishers have at last engaged with hostile middle England in a first serious advance on the mission to Downing Street.
Or so the Labour hierarchy would have you believe. But they have made a serious tactical error.
The infamous Maginot Line was a fortified defensive line built by the French to protect the Franco-German border. It was a formidable defensive structure, and a feat of military engineering and strategising far beyond the era in which it was built. It lies between 12 to 16 miles in depth and stretched from the Swiss Alps in the south to the Channel in the north. The defensive structure was completed after ten years, just before the outbreak of war, and is estimated in today’s money to have cost the equivalent of nearly €50 trillion.
This is the comparable psychological position the Labour party are now staking their ground upon. The party’s grey beards have assumed that, much like the French army, the Conservatives would become unsteady under fire and surrender without trace when grapeshot thinned the lines. This is a first-class misjudgement. The Conservatives are headed through the Ardennes.
Miliband stole the Tories’ one-nation clothes precisely because David Cameron had forgotten to look after them. The Labour leader was executing a classic New Labour move straight from the Tony Blair’s playbook. But unlike the Blair years the Tories will not move ever-rightwards to placate the rabid tenancy and pander to their core. Cameron, frankly, is far too astute for that. Revitalising the “compassionate conservative” model that launched his leadership some seven years ago, the Conservative leader resolutely refused to fall into Labour’s lazy caricature. Moreover, he fought back and punched through Labour’s lines. Tough language on Labour’s Achilles heel – the deficit – will cut through to the nation’s conscience far more than any high-minded seminar on a 19th century Disraelian ideal.
Cameron was right to ignore those telling him to blow the Tory dog whistle hard and instead listen to those urging a return to the modernising approach. The electorate can still see that Cameron was and is a different kind of Conservative — a compassionate, modern, family man who does not embody the worst of Tory excesses, regardless of the impact of some of his policies.
People like him and they like the idea of him. Cameron and his closest cohorts rightly recognised that their, admittedly very small, likelihood of winning outright the general election of 2015 lies in convincing those who wrestled with their thoughts in 2010.
What held back the Conservative party in the last election was not Cameron, but the perception of the wider Conservative party. He had modernised, but had his party?
So much of Labour’s onslaught on the Conservatives is so deeply unoriginal it allowed Cameron the opportunity to directly rebut them. So welfare reform isn’t “cruel Tories, leaving people to fend for themselves” but a recognition that the only route out of poverty is work – a message that will strike a chord in Labour heartlands.
Pursuing excellence in education isn’t “elitist, old fashioned and out of touch” but a tangible message that the Conservative party understands every parent worries about providing the best start in life for their child. One of the most galling aspects of Cameron’s speech was his wholesale appropriation of academies – a Labour initiative that we used to be proud of.
Most devastating though was the simple sound bite to counter Miliband’s speech; Labour, the prime minister said, are “the party of one notion: more borrowing”.
Focus group after focus group continually highlights that, for whatever the coalition’s economic failures, the public are terrified of Labour’s perceived economic plan. Cameron, in one neat sentence, encapsulated that.
The prime minister failed to win an overall majority in 2010 because he didn’t finish detoxifying his party. A difficult six months is no reason to give up on the project and lurch to right. Cameron used his speech today to show his nation is more than just austerity, and in resisting the temptation to pander to his Thatcherite critics and instead speak to the nation, Cameron has begun, all too easily, to circumnavigate Labour’s best laid defence.
David Talbot is a political consultant