There are two talking points in Westminster this week. One is about who is up and who is down following the local council elections. This finds the Cameroons privately pleased that the Tory party has largely kept its head despite the Ukip surge, the Labour side worried about whether they are doing well enough for mid-term and the Liberal Democrats relieved that their vote is holding up in their parliamentary seats if nowhere else.
The other conversation is more profound. It is about why close to one in four of those who bothered to do their democratic duty last week voted Ukip. The rise of any new party is a statement of dissatisfaction with the existing establishment. But what is striking about Ukip is the diversity of its appeal. The fact that it secured more second placess than any other party last Thursday shows that it is far more than just a repository for Tebbitites disillusioned with the Tory modernising project. It is succeeding in drawing support from ex-Tory and Labour voters. It reflects disillusionment not just with one party but with all parties.
Part of what lies behind Ukip’s rise is the extent to which the consensus in Westminster doesn’t match the consensus in the country. International development is, perhaps, the most potent example. All three main parties are committed to Britain increasing its aid budget to 0.7 per cent of gross national income. But the public view is quite the opposite. One minister complains that most of his constituents would think it absurd to cut the army’s budget while increasing aid. But, he claims, if he said that in Westminster, he’d be regarded as a ‘maverick’. This minister argues that what the political class fails to understand is that many of Ukip’s policies ‘aren’t fringe positions. They’re only fringe positions in the Westminster Village.’
Nigel Farage plays up to this idea, presenting himself as the tribune of common sense. He is aided in this task by the reluctance of other political leaders to paint in primary colours. The Farage agenda might, in places, be contradictory. But it is clear he wants to quit the EU and the ECHR, lower taxes, scrap green subsidies, bring back grammar schools and increase defence spending.
There are no caveats here. Their absence is the luxury afforded to a party that’ll never have to put its ideas into practice. But Ukip’s platform does stand in stark contrast to what one minister calls ‘the mini-managerialism’ of the three main parties. The other striking thing about Farage is his self-confidence. He isn’t apologetic about who he is or what he believes. Travel with Farage and he goes first-class with no attempt to pretend that he’d rather be in standard. One can’t imagine him posing for snaps designed to show how modest his holiday is. He doesn’t appear to feel the need to try to demonstrate ‘ordinariness’ that so many politicians do. It seems to come naturally to him.
To describe Farage as unspun would be wrong. He talks about the need for ‘clever marketing, simple, straightforward messages that resonate and appeal and hit.’ But he has grasped that spin now does the opposite of what it was invented to do. It was meant to improve politicians’ communication with the public, to cut out the barriers to people understanding them. But the uniform language and dress of the political class are now a turn-off. It is no coincidence that the politicians most often called by their first names are those who disdain the rules of political PR. Boris Johnson is the most famous example, but Vince Cable is another. One thing that makes him stand out is his age. Part of the case for Cable, who has just turned 70, as Liberal Democrat leader is that in the TV debates his age would instantly set him apart from Cameron and Miliband.
Confidants of the party leaders complain about comparisons with these political showmen. They argue that the media wouldn’t allow the Prime Minister or leader of the opposition to get away with doing what Boris does, let alone Farage. They are at least partly right. But these leaders would, I suspect, earn some respect if they stopped pretending to have a keen interest in things they are in reality too busy to pay much attention to.
Cameron has long had form on this front. In the early 1990s, when he worked at Conservative Central Office, one of his specialisms was giving ministers pass notes on that week’s pop culture before they went on Question Time.
But today Cameron’s greatest challenge is showing that he understands the new world in which we are living. He defined himself so strongly as a politician for the good times — ‘let sunshine win the day’, ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’ etc — that he has struggled to adjust to the grittier, post-crash world.
What is keeping spirits up in No. 10, however, is Labour’s vulnerability. It failed to break 30 per cent in the county council elections; a pretty poor result for the principal opposition party when the other two main parties are in coalition with each other.
Last week, Lynton Crosby told the Tories’ political cabinet how the party would undermine Labour between now and the next election. The Australian strategist explained that the two main lines of attack were going to be that Labour hasn’t changed — ‘same old Labour’ — and that Miliband is weak. It was testament to Crosby’s dominance over the party machine that no Cabinet minister queried his analysis. I understand that the precise phrase ‘same old Labour’ was Cameron’s suggestion.
Persuading the public that Labour can’t be trusted with office again is necessary but not sufficient. To achieve victory, the Tories must connect with the electorate in a way that they are currently not. That means Cameron finding a role for Boris; he’d be well suited to being the chief Cameron surrogate.
Those around Cameron fret about whether Boris can be trusted or not. But the presence of Crosby, the man who helped get Boris get elected in London twice, should ensure his good behaviour. Then there is the other question the Cameroons have to ask themselves: is there a Tory better suited to reaching those parts of the electorate that Farage can but the Tory leadership can’t? The answer should tell them that they need Boris on board for the campaign.