David Cameron has so far baited Gordon Brown with the confidence of a schoolboy teasing a roped guard dog. The Chancellor has wanted to unleash himself on his opponent from the outset, but was restrained by No. 10 Downing Street on the basis that such attacks would be a waste of energy during the new party leader’s media honeymoon. Best wait until the public grow sick of the new-look Tories, the Blairites counselled — and then the Chancellor’s joyless team of character assassins could get to work.
Six months later and time has only strengthened Mr Cameron’s opinion-poll lead, and sharpened the focus on Mr Brown’s weaknesses. No. 10 has appeared to sit back and enjoy the Conservative portrayal of the Chancellor as a ‘roadblock to reform’, giving the Tories time and space to consolidate their message and take full advantage of a still receptive media. To the Treasury’s fury, Mr Cameron has stubbornly refused to implode.
What is less understood — or reported — is how Mr Cameron’s team have been using this period to prepare themselves for battle, when it comes. The project now under way in their policy laboratory is to define ‘Cameronism’ before someone else does it for them. At the heart of this is a single concept: that politics and government are overlapping but separate entities, and that effective government does not just mean passing laws, but also moulding popular culture.
The most intriguing part of the gameplan is the idea of creating a Cameronian ‘aroma’ — which, I am told, is ‘vastly more important’ than any specific policies he may eventually advocate. The task, as one senior policymaker puts it, is to ‘create an aroma around the Conservatives so people naturally imagine our policies are the right ones’ without necessarily knowing what they are. It is about turning the intangibility of Mr Cameron into an asset.
If this sounds naive, then we must ask why opinion polls suggest that the Tories’ non-existent health and education policies are already more popular than Labour’s (all too real) measures in this area. I suggested a fortnight ago that this meant Tory support was mercurial. But to Team Cameron, it shows that the leader’s aroma is successfully wafting through the country and that voters are inhaling it with the whetted appetite of Bisto kids.
Mr Cameron has repeatedly ventured into ‘non-governmental politics’. He has criticised WH Smith for promoting cut-price chocolate bars at its counters, chided fashion chains for prematurely sexualising girls and taken issue with rappers who glorify violence. The Conservatives have no intention of banning cheap chocolate, censoring Radio 1 or imposing a minimum age for miniskirts. Their strategy is to connect directly with the public via talk radio, the web and newspapers.
For Cameron’s inner circle, however, this is about more than appealing communication and presentation. They genuinely believe that politicians can shape society by leading and shaping national debate, and that this can be more effective than passing laws. WH Smith, for example, was temporarily shamed into withdrawing its chocolate-with-the-newspaper offer from several stores. The most powerful example cited by the Cameronians is drink-driving, which they believe was conquered because it became a social taboo, rather than by the formality of law-making.
This is what Mr Cameron meant in a speech on Tuesday when he said that ‘the new politics works by persuasion, not by power’. His much-hyped statement on the family was in effect a declaration that he supported the institution, but would not do much specifically to bolster it — and that there was no question of radical welfare laws of the sort passed by Bill Clinton. Mr Cameron said his government would aim to ‘enlarge the political culture to include discussion of the family’ but not have ‘government stepping in with its battalions’. Cameronism is about emoting more than legislating; its venue of choice is much more the talk-show studio than the floor of the Commons.
‘Aroma’, then, is the chosen Tory weapon against Mr Brown. In his family speech, Mr Cameron explicitly contrasted his hands-off approach with the Chancellor’s web of tax credits, Sure Start nurseries and other expensive devices which have brought — at best — mixed results. The next general election may be about the Cameronian fragrance versus the five-year plans of the Chancellor: bouquet versus Budget. Which will the electorate find more alluring?
It is worth recording that Mr Brown’s attempts at creating his own aroma have produced something like a badly chosen aftershave. When he told New Woman magazine that he starts his day by listening to the Arctic Monkeys on his iPod he looked ridiculous rather than cool. His recent claim that his wife ‘comes from Middle England’ — as if it were a geographical location — only underlined his inability to understand that numinous electoral concept. He sounded more like a foreign king telling subjects that his queen, at least, is a native.
But Mr Brown’s forte is political warfare, where his record against the Conservatives is considerable. He will surely perceive how vulnerable the ‘aroma’ strategy is. It can easily be caricatured as the naive sloganeering of an upstart public relations man who has found himself leading a party, ditching the no-nonsense practical policy of Thatcher and picking up the worst habits of Mr Blair. But first the Chancellor intends to soften up Mr Cameron by a highly personalised attack.
Against the advice of Mr Blair — who in a wonderful Freudian slip at PMQs confused the words ‘toff’ and ‘tough’ — the Brown assault will revive class warfare. The Prime Minister, to his credit, argues that Britain has moved on from the days of inverted snobbery, but the Chancellor seems to have a lower regard for the country he aspires to lead. It is already being pointed out, for example, that Mr Cameron relied on his ‘corporate friends’ to secure tickets to the England v. Sweden game and travelled to Germany by ‘private jet’. The Chancellor himself is homing in on what he calls Cameron’s ‘namby-pamby policies on chocolate oranges’. Ed Balls, his closest lieutenant, has pledged to unmask Mr Cameron as a ‘hollow salesman’. All these remarks were made within the space of four days, and look like the first salvos in a savage, co-ordinated attack. Mr Cameron may not have long to complete his definition of new politics. The rope which tethers the Chancellor to No. 11 Downing Street is growing more frayed by the day.