Warning for the Tories: Political roller coasters go down as well as up…

Julian Glover is not given to glib or easy judgements on how the two main UK parties are faring. But his newspaper’s poll is showing the same trend as other recent polls: that there appears to be a slow (and I would guess almost reluctant) rally to Gordon Brown. More worrying from a Tory perspective is that that rock solid 40%+ is looking decidedly soft.

Although Cameron was his usual aggressive self in the Commons today, it was the Labour benches that had to be told to shut up by the Speaker John Bercow. The mood amongst Labour MPs is lifting, with some of them even contemplating coming out with their own slight majority: although May is still a very long way off.Danny Finklestein, one of the most intelligent Tory observers and a former special advisor to William Hague, reckons that whatever the polls say, Ashcroft’s money and clever segmentation of the English shire constituencies the Tories lost to the Blairite revolution will be enough to get them over the line. Increasingly that line is looking like a majority of any description will do.

Gone are the rye speculations about an 80/90 seat majority. Although to be fair to the Tory leadership, I don’t think any of them thought this would be anything other than a long drawn out war of attrition. The Tory blogosphere after about 18 months of euphoric (and often vitriolic) pursuit of Gordon Brown seems to have almost blown itself out.

Michael Portillo has a plausible answer. No one quite believes that change is as necessary as those in the church of the Tory faithful have been telling us for the last few years:

After some hesitation, the government is hanging together, and Britain is in crisis rather than chaos. The demand for change is strong but not overwhelming. It doesn’t resemble 1979, when, despite widespread fear of Margaret Thatcher’s radicalism, desperate times dictated exceptional solutions. It isn’t like 1997, when an almost revolutionary fervour gripped Britain. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, wrote William Wordsworth of the storming of the Bastille, and Tony Blair picked up the metaphor as light burst upon his first day in office.

Voters today have little expectation of a bright new morning. Their unhappiness with Gordon Brown, though substantial, does not overpower their worries about the Tories, which today centre on their competence rather than their radicalism. For an electorate that weakly wills change, a hung parliament is a rational outcome.

Mr Portillo has put his finger on the core problem: competence. George Osborne in particular, still comes over as a probationer teacher who is desperately trying to bone up on the curriculum the night before teaching the class/the nation about his thoughts on macro economics. And as Portillo acutely observes, whatever the arguments and counter economic arguments:

…a recovery requires confidence, and politicians are better qualified to judge sentiment than economists, and are in a position to lead it. It is as reasonable to argue that recovery has been stifled because neither party looks willing to tackle the deficit, as that the alleged recovery would be set back by “precipitate” action to control the debt.

As he possibly correctly suggests, a hung parliament is a nightmare for anyone trying to provide clear leadership. If it is hung, we might expect a second election by whomever it is that wins to try and get permission to govern in their own terms. The Tories’ lack of clarity, however is not doing them any favours:

Since October 2008 the party has shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. At last year’s party conference it seemed to have settled on a position. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, talked of austerity and delivered something like a green budget.

In January this year he said that in-year plans would need to be altered immediately after the election. But by the end of the month Cameron promised there would be no “swingeing cuts” in the first year. The shadow business secretary, Ken Clarke, added to the confusion last week, commenting that the Conservatives would have to be tougher on public spending than “Margaret Thatcher ever was”.

After 20 economists wrote to The Sunday Times last weekend, urging that a start on reducing public spending be made at once, Osborne was quick to claim that that endorsed the Conservatives’ position. But, alas, Tory policy was by then as clear as mud.

He goes on to talk about the party’s inconsistency, and suggests that the party needed a big internal argument and hammer out a single and robust line on the economy. So speaks the veteran of a Thatcher cabinet.

That’s simply not the Cameron way. He’s urbane, polite and charming to his friends and cruel and ruthless to his enemies. He has little inclination to micro manage his front bench team and gives the distinct impression of being profoundly post ideological in his political outlook. Thus the residual distrust amongst many latter day Thatcherites, like my former colleagues at the Telegraph Simon Heffer and Jeff Randall.

That was fine when times were great. But Brown’s taunts that Cameron is unable to tackle policy issues seem finally to be drawing electoral blood. Cameron still has the same capacity to attack with wit and ferocity, but it’s nearly always related to news stories skilfully garnered for him by Andy Coulson, rather than on grander matters of state. Despite Brown’s poor footwork (and notorious lack of ’emotional intelligence’), he’s getting renewed marks for being consistent.

In the last three years, Brown’s one, very palpable hit was his view that this was no time for a novice. To be frank, looking at the two front benches, Labour looks old and knackered. The Tories, by contrast, look younger and, unburdened by government for thirteen years, have an abundance of energy not available to their older colleagues on the government benches. And they will look even younger after the election when many of the old guard will have been forced to stand down.

Yet now it is the Tory back benchers’ turn to contemplate the possibility of failure, after four years of hope. A shared hatred of Gordon Brown may what binds many in the Tory blogosphere together into a single band. But that may not be enough to win the swing voters of middle England back. The party now needs to give people an excuse to switch from the brooding devil they know, to one they still, after four years, don’t.

Or, as Michael Portillo argues, they may just have to hope that something disastrous turns up to tip Mr Brown unceremoniously out of his eyrie in Number Ten. If that is the plan, then it’s a rather unappealing – not to mention an unpatriotic – one. That’s pretty much what I suggested this time last year, only back then I thought Labour would give up without a fight.

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