Cameron faces battle of his short political life…

Frazer Nelson is one of the sharpest observers of the New Labour project. All the sharper for being well outside Labour’s domestic melodrama of the last few years. On the occasion of Brown’s ascendency he offers some insight to what faces the Tory’s most popular leader since, well, John Major. They can, he now argues, take nothing for granted:

It was a phrase that David Cameron would never dare to utter. As Gordon Brown was giving his first speech as Labour party leader in Manchester, he repeatedly pledged to defend the ‘British way of life’. This dog whistle may have been missed by his audience, and was certainly neglected by the press, but resonated in Conservative headquarters. Immigration, an issue which the Tories have dropped as a frontline issue, is now firmly on Labour’s agenda. And this is simply the latest of the spin bowls being delivered by our new Prime Minister.

Mr Brown has only just arrived in 10 Downing Street but is already proving a more agile foe than the joyless curmudgeon against whom the Conservatives ‘war-gamed’ in their strategic meetings. Their belief was that, if they gave Mr Brown the space to reveal himself, he would blunder, scowl and scare off the electorate. In fact, precisely the opposite has happened: the Tories have made fools of themselves with the grammar schools civil war, while Mr Brown has grown into his new role.

His attempts to lure Liberal Democrats into his government took all of Westminster by surprise, and Quentin Davies’s astonishing defection on Tuesday hit the Cameron team like a thunderbolt. The only certainty about Mr Brown now is that he intends to surprise. Could this supposedly leftist Scotsman actually win over Middle England, the C1s who decide every election? Not so long ago, this was thought impossible. Now, all bets are off.

Nelson reckons his ‘Britishness’ campaign has barely got going yet. The driver? Immigration. And it’s territory that exposes one big weakness in the new Conservative approach, it’s deep fear of being tarred with a ‘nasty’ Thatcherite brush:

The Brown focus groups are run with a degree of professionalism that makes Mr Blair look like a finger-in-the-wind amateur. The phrase ‘British jobs for British people’, which he first used last September, scores particularly highly, and we can expect to hear it again. There are, after all, 5.3 million people on benefits — yet 1,500 immigrants arriving every day in search of work. Here, Mr Brown is outwitting the Conservatives. Philip Hammond, the shadow work and pensions secretary, has had a year and a half in which he could have argued that mass immigration has been encouraged because Mr Brown’s own welfare policies make it financially rational for the British-born jobless to stay out of work. Instead, the Tories have been mute, fearful of reviving their image as the ‘nasty party’, instructed by Mr Cameron’s strategists to ‘change the record’ and stick to new authorised subjects such as the environment and social justice. ‘We don’t want to be seen as anti-welfare,’ Mr Hammond explains in private — thus ceding a vast tract of political territory close to the heart of Middle England.

He also has them ‘blocked’ on tax. Interestingly, Frazer believes that Brown has learned a valuable lesson about tax:

It is precisely his addiction to tax revenues that has led him to the conclusion that he cannot raise the top rate of tax: higher tax rates, he has finally grasped, mean smaller revenues. This is very different indeed to what he believed before 1997, when he was keen on a new top rate of 50 per cent. But ten years in the Treasury has turned him into that rare thing: a redistributionist Prime Minister who understands and relishes the dynamics of the Laffer curve.

And his strategy seems to have been to let the Tories build up a head of steam in one direction, whilst he moves off on another, not least in offering privileged tax status to City financiers:

As Mr Brown vigorously protects his right flank, and Mr Cameron moves the Conservatives ‘into the mainstream’ (as he defines it), it is hard to see which party is positioned where. Mr Cameron says that upfront promises of tax cuts threaten ‘stability’; Mr Brown keeps his counsel. On the environment, NHS reform and private equity, the Conservatives are now attacking from the left. So amid all this political cross-dressing, Mr Brown is presenting himself as the safer bet for Middle Britain.

He has made remarkable progress in a short space of time. Last summer, he rather wonderfully declared that ‘my wife comes from Middle England’, as if he were a mediaeval king who wished to make peace with a new dominion by marrying a local. Now he realises he is not engaged in battle for a territory but a cultural war, which he can win by posing as a heavyweight statesman with an instinctive grasp of ordinary Britons’ anxieties and aspirations versus decadent, faddish Mr Cameron with his hopelessly out-of-touch coterie.

If you listen hard, you should hear a lot of soto voce clamouring of “Don’t panic, don’t panic” coming from deep within Cameroon Central. These could be very early days, and there is much to play for:

British politics has reached a genuine turning point. Since he became leader, Mr Cameron has been able to sit back and let Mr Blair and Mr Brown tear each other apart. He must now settle down to a long game of guerilla political warfare with the most ruthless fighter in Westminster. The election may come as early as next summer, or as late as 2010. But the battle for Middle England starts now.

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  • Turgon

    Mick,

    An extremely interesting piece. I admit to being a moderate fan of Brown (I like dour efficient people to be politicians). The idea of using immigration as a Labour issue is a bit of a master stroke. I can also imagine a Scotsman running the UK and harping on about British values as an antidote to the SNP and maybe reducing the centrifugal forces which everyone claims are at work in the UK. Any comments from anyone? Also is it just me or will anyone admit to thinking Cameron believes in anything other than power for himself.

  • Dewi

    Brown certainly gives the impression of substance. What did Mandelson say ? “The problem with Gordon is that he’s all substance and no spin”
    Let’s see how quickly he gets our people out of Iraq – that’s my judgemental criterion.

  • higher tax rates, he has finally grasped, mean smaller revenues.

    All depends what point on the Laffer curve you are on.

    one of Brown’s biggest problems may be that the south-east of England is on the left-hand side of the curve. Given the huge level of economic activity there anyway, a UK-wide cut might not bring in enough new business to justify the loss in revenue from existing firms.

    Scotland and Northern Ireland are more likely to be on the right hand side, given the greater slack in their economies.

    The obvious solution is differential regional tax rates. I suspect that Brown will try to obscure this reality by moving to lower UK wide tax rates that cut revenues in England without stimulating activity in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

  • Turgon

    Dewi,

    I agree in that I did not support the Iraq war Mk2 but I am very worried that cutting and running will produce an ever bigger bloodbath if that is possible.

    I suspect the American may do that though. I think one of my first memories of a political event was seeing the helicopters lifting people off the embassy roof in Siagon. I wonder if my son’s first such memory will be similar.

  • Turgon

    Dewi,

    On TV not actually in Siagon of course

  • Dewi

    I’m not sure a bigger bloodbath is possible. The truth of the stuff out there is horrifying – our contribution was invasion without understanding or strategy. I regard Blair as a middle east peace csar as a sick joke.

  • Harry Flashman

    The whole Cameron leadership is a farce.

    Just as the country had finally decided they were fed up with shiny initiatives and glossy spin and were ready for dull solid leadership on day to day issues, the Tories decide that maybe they should ditch their long line of dull solid leaders who droned on about day to day issues and elect a man of absolutely no substance and completely devoid of core values who would run around the North Pole talking about the environment.

    In the same way that Margaret Thatcher made the Labour party unelectable for almost a generation so has Tony Blair done the same to the Tories. I frankly would be happy enough to see Brown win the next election at least he believes in something the Tories are little more than a joke.

    If Brown did quietly pull the boys out of Basra then I’m not sure Iraq would be any worse off and I think most British people would heave a silent sigh of relief. If he scrapped the ID card and reversed gear a bit on the massive state sector and eased up on taxation which he has allowed to build up over ten years, then I would back him to the hilt.

  • snakebrain

    Cameron has done his job already, and is probably close to being ready to step down.

    The Tory strategy is, and has been for some time, to use Cameron as a telegenic, smooth-talking foil to Blair to rehabilitate the Tory’s image. That part has swung along nicely.

    Phase II is for George Osborne to step into the top job as the credible competitor to Brown. Make no mistake about this guy; he’s extremely sharp, massively committed and absolutely tough enough to take Brown on in the next general election.

    Brown has been a bit of a surprise so far; he’s also a very canny Scotsman, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the outreach stuff is the beginning of a concerted strategy to ensure Lib Dem support at the next general election, in the event of a dramatic turn of fortune. That’s pure surmise though.

    The date of the next general election will be crucial to the timing of the Cameron-Osborne handover. The election itself may well be one of the most gripping contests in British parliamentary history. It will definitely be fought tooth and nail between two of the most capable men in British politics.

    My money, oddly enough, is marginally in Osborne’s favour just now. I think he has a lot to gain from a fresh start, against the baggage of the Blair era that Brown has been working so hard to disassociate him from. By the time he’ll have to declare, Brown will have staked his ground out well enough for a counter-strategy to be evolved and implemented in plenty of time for the general election.

    Either way, it’s going to be fast and furious. Lay in plenty of popcorn and put your feet up is my advice..

  • Also is it just me or will anyone admit to thinking Cameron believes in anything other than power for himself.

    No disagreement with that. He’s a first-rate pseud. Most of the Tories I know put up with him, even enthusiastically support him, purely because they think he can deliver an election victory. None of them have a clue what he actually stands for, and most of them are waiting for an older, wiser, Hague to come back in from the cold.

    Cameron’s support is broad but extraordinarily shallow. If the Tories don’t make an impact he’s out on his bum.

    Just as the country had finally decided they were fed up with shiny initiatives and glossy spin and were ready for dull solid leadership on day to day issues

    Which is why I’ve always thought Cameron’s “heir to Blair” line was spectacularly misguided. But remember, it’s aimed at a very narrow slice of the political market – upmarket, high-earning comsmopolitans who would have been liberal Tories until the 1990s. The question is whether this is Cameron just targeting people who are his mates. Many British marginal seats are rather dull, workaday places full of C1s and C2s who are anything but cosmopolitan and are narrowly interested in bread and butter issues, as well as tending to have hard-line views on crime and immigration.

    The Tory comeback in yuppie constituencies in Greater London was already well underway before Cameron, while the Tories have already ceded most of the high status provincial seats to the LibDems and have made little progress in those dull Northern and Midlands marginal towns that traditionally decide elections in Britain.

    Brown has been a bit of a surprise so far; he’s also a very canny Scotsman

    Brown has boxed very clever in these past few weeks – the attempt to decapitate the LibDems, although it backfired, was genius. But personally I don’t think any of it matters a toss. Brown’s fate is intimately bound up with the British housing market; and that’s the way it should be, as he’s the architect of the boom/frenzy. If he can survive to the next general election without a crash, he’s farting through silk; if there is a crash, Gordon Brown’s political career crashes with it.

    Phase II is for George Osborne to step into the top job as the credible competitor to Brown.

    What, you really think Cameron is just chair warming for Osborne? Dream on, sunshine.

    There’s no reason for Cameron to give up this side of a general election and, even if he did, there’s no guarantee that Osborne would be a good performer. I still remember Osborne’s first Question Time as Shadow Chancellor when Gordon (metaphorically) grabbed him by the ears, tossed him in the air, and kicked him out of the park.

    Besides, Osborne is an arch neo-con and I’m not sure that’s really where Britain wants to be led at the moment.

    Osborne lives in the next street to Damon Albarn and I’ve canvassed both of them. Albarn comes across as by far the cleverer!

  • Osborne lives in the next street to Damon Albarn

    Sorry, meant to say Brett Anderson.

  • snakebrain

    Time will tell Sammy, I’ll put a tenner on it quite happily if you like…

  • Time will tell Sammy, I’ll put a tenner on it quite happily if you like…

    On George Osborne becoming leader of the Tory party before the next general election? Name your price.

  • snakebrain

    On Osborne being next leader and taking over from Cameron either just before or shortly after the next general election

  • Diluted Orange

    [i]Brown’s fate is intimately bound up with the British housing market; and that’s the way it should be, as he’s the architect of the boom/frenzy. [/i]

    Completely agree. It is looking more and more likely that we’re going to get into a situation, not too far from now, where there will be widespread negative equity amongst 20/30 somethings who have been buying property at ridiculously inflated prices over the last few years. Another looming economic disaster, which Brown has been inextricably linked to, are the immense rates of personal debt, mortgages aside, prevailing amongst the UK population. Total outstanding personal debt in the UK accounts to something like £1 trillion, which is enormous and completely irresponsible. If interest rates rise significantly enough in the next year or so to combat inflation then mortgage, credit card and loan re-payments are going to soar and Brown will need a Houdini act to escape from it.

    In that scenario, it won’t matter if Timmy Mallett is the Tory leader, I think they’ll get elected. It may sound callous but IMO, up to a certain point, the British electorate will stomach an Iraq, an Afghanistan, a devious, false Cheshire Cat of a leader and even double standards and downright lies – so long as their wallet isn’t hit too hard and they can get a job. If and when the economy takes a nose-dive there’s no doubt that the Tories will be in and it will have nothing to do with Grammar schools or the new brand of ‘compassionate Conservatism’.

    Personally, I feel that this will be a terrible shame if Gordon Brown’s premiership is scarred as a result – he is a much more likeable and trustworthy guy than Blair, and Cameron for that matter. It’s quite refreshing to see that the spin machine seems to have departed 10 Downing St with Blair.

  • On Osborne being next leader and taking over from Cameron either just before or shortly after the next general election

    Who knows what will happen after the next general election? No deal!

  • snakebrain

    My basic point was that Cameron is a vehicle and nothing else. He wants it himself, and may well try to do the dirty a la Blair/Granita, but that’s the gameplan..

    I’m actually only passing on second-hand info here, but the person who told me is in a position to know..