The most famous political quotations come not from politicians but the wickedness of headline writers. Although Jim Callaghan never said ‘Crisis? What crisis?’, the phrase stuck because it seemed to sum up perfectly his psychological denial during the Winter of Discontent. It was a newspaper, not Thomas Jefferson (or even Thomas Paine), which declared ‘that government is best which governs least’. So it scarcely matters that David Cameron never actually said ‘hug a hoodie’ — the words seemed a credible summation of his approach to crime. It is enough, anyway, for Labour to declare war.
When the Tory leader resurrected the theme last week with a new saying — ‘we have to show more love’ — he provided John Reid with the mission he had been waiting for. For some time the Home Secretary has been looking for an excuse to engage in some hand-to-hand combat with Mr Cameron. He still has his eye on the party leadership, and his chances will be significantly augmented if he can well and truly savage Mr Cameron. As one of his allies charmingly put it, ‘John wants some Etonian blood on his hands’.
So it is sheer good luck for Mr Reid that the Queen’s Speech next week — which will launch a tranche of Home Office legislation — has come at a time when Mr Cameron has decided to try to prove the media wrong about hoodies. His message is one he regards as integral to his own brand of conservatism: that the roots of crime lie in social breakdown. And while the media may mock this claim, he has been emboldened by Tory focus groups which allegedly suggest public sym-pathy with it. He believes the media are out of step with popular opinion, and I am told he will keep repeating this message until the press sees the error of its ways.
While Mr Cameron is fighting the media, Labour will be fighting Mr Cameron. Tony Blair had long planned the Queen’s Speech to be a platform for Mr Reid, but neither of them imagined it could be turned to such party political advantage. The Prime Minister believes Mr Cameron is leading his party headlong into the trap in which Labour languished during the 1980s: holding forth on the causes of crime at a time when the electorate wants the streets made safe from villains. ‘Love is not the answer,’ Mr Blair declared on Monday. ‘Locking them up is.’
Mr Reid believes a new battle line has been drawn over crime, and he intends to stage as many fights as possible. The Queen’s Speech provides plenty of opportunities to do so in Parliament with yet more criminal justice legislation. There is even talk of extending the identity card scheme — not because such measures are needed at the moment, but in order that another vote can be forced, and the Tories shown to oppose a scheme which Mr Reid believes has overwhelming public backing. Labour sees a chance to breathe life into what has until now been a rather pathetic slogan: that Cameron talks tough but votes soft.
At the same time, of course, Mr Reid will be fighting a parallel battle. After the Queen’s Speech he will be able to posture as a Home Secretary who is not only leading the fight against the Conservatives but unifying Labour and setting the pace for a party in desperate need of renewal. The Chancellor’s strategy, by contrast, is to sit quietly and wait until the crown settles snugly on his head.
Inside Conservative headquarters there is much disquiet. Even George Osborne, shadow chancellor, admitted privately that the original ‘hug a hoodie’ speech in July backfired. David Davis joked that it had been a misprint and was meant to read ‘mug a hoodie’. It was hard to find a Tory MP who did not agree that this had been a bad day’s work for Mr Cameron, best forgotten as soon as possible. But Oliver Letwin insisted and has continued to insist that it was an immense success: even the parody conveyed the message that the Conservatives had changed. And the Tory policy chief has won the argument: the Tory huggers have overpowered the Tory muggers.
Mr Cameron’s claim is that no sane person who reads the whole text of his ‘love a lout’ speech could disagree with it. It is a fundamentally Conservative analysis, he believes, intended to complement rather than to replace its traditional policies on crime. His thoughts on ‘love’ have been much influenced by Camila Batmanghelidjh, an Iranian who runs a charity based on the attachment theory of child psychology — which uses, among other tools, the Tibetan Buddhist method of compassionate restraint. She seeks to give children a relationship with adults which they may be denied in a broken home — and in this, Mr Cameron sees the germ of a political agenda.
So his assertion that ‘society needs to be more responsible’ may sound woolly to the press, but it is integral to the Cameron plan. It’s a message from which he believes he should not and cannot back down. But Tory veterans of political warfare see a different problem. The impact of speeches is determined not by text, but by headline: it is a cruel, unfair but immutable rule of political combat.
‘David Davis must have his head in his hands,’ one of Mr Reid’s allies told me. They hope the shadow home secretary may soon have an assassin’s knife in his hands as well. But Mr Davis will not rise to what he sees as Labour bait. It’s his job to talk about the consequences of crime, he believes; let others dwell on the causes. Labour has not inched ahead of the Tories on crime in a decade of polling, and Mr Davis believes there is no serious risk that this will change now.
But it is precisely this change that Mr Reid believes he can now bring about. The more obstinate Mr Cameron is, the more he can be portrayed as an out-of-touch rich kid. Labour’s attack is ready: Tory crime policies represent the view from the Notting Hill dinner party. It is easier to have sympathy with hoodies if the only ones you encounter are in youth custody centres. Mr Cameron’s musings are born of inexperience: toff on crime, toff on the causes of crime.
Class war, of course, has always been part of the Chancellor’s armoury. Mr Brown is keen to portray himself in the months and years ahead as the man of the people, fighting a naive and over-privileged elite — he has long wanted to play Cromwell to Mr Cameron’s Charles I. And Mr Reid has precisely the same aspiration. With the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday, a ferocious three-way battle will begin.