I wonder how they do things now at Tory headquarters. For the ’79 election, the preparations had been completed weeks in advance. Press conferences had been planned on the basis of a four-week campaign, press releases drafted and shadow ministers told when they would be needed in London to go on the platform. Then the starting gun was fired and von Moltke kicked in. No plan survives the initial contact with the enemy. Some of the material was used, but not in the order that had been expected. There was a lot of improvisation. But it did not seem to matter.
Something similar happened in 1992. The first press conference was to be devoted to tax. Labour’s tax plans would be lambasted, allowing the Tories to move on to other themes. Fifteen minutes before the curtain was due to rise, there was a problem. One of the Treasury advisers said he no longer had confidence in his figures. John Major was surprisingly calm. ‘Well, what will we talk about?’ was his sangfroid response. The apparent crisis was a felix culpa. Instead of a blitzkrieg, the tax question became a Western Front slog, greatly to the Tories’ advantage.
Thus far in this contest, Boris has been surprisingly good at dodging trouble. Ambition encourages self–discipline and he has also been lucky in his opponents. Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson — what a pair; while Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish tricoteuse, has had a human warmth bypass. Boris not only gives the impression that he would like people to enjoy themselves; in his case, it is genuine.
To put it mildly, questions still have to be answered. We know about Boris’s instincts. He believes in personal freedom and social generosity. That would be perfect if government merely consisted of romps across the sunlit uplands. But those are rare interludes. More often, there is an inescapable necessity to remind hungry sheep about the price of grass. Boris once said that his motto was ‘Have cake, eat cake’. Although he is more likely to get away with that than most, there are limits. He also likes to be popular. But governments frequently have to be unpopular. Brexit apart, the PM has not yet had to take controversial decisions, partly because he did not have a majority. It looks as if he may be about to gain one.
Margaret Thatcher expected to be overdrawn at the bank of political unpopularity for most of a parliament, on the assumption that it would all come right on polling day. She got a lot done. Tony Blair fretted over the gold coins of his popularity, terrified that any of them should escape. He got little done. Which example would Boris follow? Unpopular decisions can involve unpopular arguments. Tory governments and premiers also have to win intellectual debates which do not necessarily enthuse the voters. By the end of the 1980s, it seemed that Margaret Thatcher had crushed the opponents of free-market economics. Alas, some battles have to be refought in every generation. Will Boris have the stomach for that fight? If he does, he may go on surprising us and become a significant prime minister. If not, weakness on his free-market flank will not win him any allies on the left. It will make interesting viewing.
That has not been true of the current election. I have spent far too much time fretting about the latest reports; far too little on serious subjects such as wine. But there was a good tasting the other day, of Vieux Château Certan, a right-bank star whose reputation has grown, deservedly. Its prices have followed, inevitably. Every vintage we tried was excellent. The 2000 was outstanding. I also had the pleasure of drinking some Château Peyraguey ’08. It was the wine Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte enjoyed on the way to Brideshead. That was their season in Arcadia. Let us hope that we are not about to enter Hades.