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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty