The signs of an imminent general election now abound. The government has started to churn out announcements as it clears the decks before Parliament rises. The most vicious of these came from John Prescott, who has changed planning rules to permit a new generation of out-of-town shopping centres and complete the destruction of our country towns, a job left half finished by the Tories in the 1980s. The most hypocritical came from Tony Blair. After eight years of government policies promoting lone parenthood through tax credits, housing and childcare, the Prime Minister attempted to ingratiate himself with an evangelical audience in south London by accusing single mothers of ‘piling up problems for the future’.
Meanwhile Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, finally emerged from medium-term obscurity to launch a nationwide poster campaign. The posters showed large pictures of Kennedy, who has lost weight over the last six weeks. His press handlers claimed that the Lib Dems are the only party which does not try to keep the identity of its leader a closely guarded secret.
Tory MPs remain in a state of euphoria. Many of them genuinely believe that the Conservative party will win the election. They are not just saying this. You can tell from the light in their eyes that they think it too. I have noted this condition before, many times, among punters setting off for the first day of the Cheltenham Festival of National Hunt horseracing; indeed, I have often suffered from the same affliction myself. The symptoms include an absolute conviction, in magnificent defiance of logic, of ultimate victory.
The sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney long ago coined a technical term to describe this state of irrational exuberance. He called it GOS — Groundless Optimism Syndrome -— while noting that it does not last very long and almost always culminates in bankruptcy and despair. Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator and the Tory MP for Henley, is now suffering from an especially advanced form of this dementia. For several weeks he has been ringing up late at night urging me to write a cover story for The Spectator about the certainty of Tory victory. These suggestions need to be handled with great tact and sympathy, in the same way a mad doctor ever so gently informs a patient that he is not the Emperor of China.
On balance it is definitely better that Tory MPs should enter the 2005 general election in this positive, if deranged, state of mind than with the inspissated gloom of 1997 and 2001. Furthermore, there are solid grounds for expecting modest Conservative gains this year. The most striking of these is the continued failure of the New Labour campaign. It continues to operate in mean, nasty and negative territory. There were two more manifestations of this last week, as the housing minister Keith Hill accused Michael Howard of ‘bigotry’ and the backbencher Kevin McNamara claimed that the Tory leader’s remarks conjured up the ‘gas chambers’.
It is extraordinary how often Labour now uses the Holocaust as its reference point when denouncing people or ideas of which it does not approve. It is difficult to say whether this reflects the hopelessly narrow range of historical and cultural reference among modern Labour MPs or some half-articulated anti-Semitism: probably a bit of both. The key point is that, when Downing Street was invited to condemn McNamara’s comments, it refused to do so, thus giving them an official sanction.
It is difficult to see why Labour persists with its brutal, carping strategy. All logic suggests it is the worst possible approach. The Express published a very interesting poll from the British Electoral Survey this week, concentrating on those certain to vote. It showed a three-point Tory lead. The poll should by no means be regarded as an election predictor, but it does indicate quite clearly that the lower the turnout on 5 May, the better the Conservatives will do. It is a well-known fact that negative campaigning deters voters, thus damaging the government. Yet New Labour can’t stop itself.
The frozen quality of the Labour campaign reflects an inner crisis. Basically, Labour is always trying to recreate the tactics used in 1997, which in retrospect can best be understood as a long series of smears and calumnies aimed at the Tories. Alastair Campbell, a senior lieutenant in that campaign, is very instrumental in running this one too, even though I am told that he has to be smuggled in through the back door of Downing Street so that he can be kept hidden from the British people. Neither Campbell nor the theoretical election chief Alan Milburn seems capable of eschewing the methods imposed in 1997.
There is now talk from inside Downing Street of an emergency meeting over Easter to recast strategy. The participants would include the Prime Minister, Milburn, Campbell, Gordon Brown and a handful of others. The venue has not been decided. It may be held at Chequers. More likely it will take the form of an extended telephone conference affair, which would avoid press reporting of a crisis session. In practice the main point on the agenda is how, and on what terms, Gordon Brown can be brought back into the election.
After his short-lived Budget excursion last week, the Chancellor, like Achilles, has returned to his tent. There he lurks, resisting all entreaties. Put simply, he refuses to come out to fight under the generalship of Blair. The key issue at stake is the party manifesto. Tony Blair and Alan Milburn are emphatic that they want a revolutionary document which will give illumination and purpose to the next four years. At the heart of their vision for 2005 is the modernisation of health and education, above all a massive expansion of the private-sector role in state schools and NHS hospitals. Gordon Brown wants nothing to do with any of this, and his friends say that he would be unable to campaign with a clear conscience on such a manifesto. It is hard to see how this problem can be resolved, but it must be very soon. The manifesto is due to be published shortly after the election is announced in about ten days’ time.
Nor is the manifesto the only issue. The organisational role of Alan Milburn, with whom Gordon Brown reportedly refuses to converse, is another. Poor Milburn is in danger of becoming the latest in a long list of Tony Blair surrogates whose political careers have been destroyed. Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers and David Blunkett are three others. In no case can the hand of the Chancellor be detected but, as with T.S. Eliot’s Macavity, somehow you sense he was there.
At all levels of the Labour party the Chancellor is taking over. Brownite union bosses win their general secretaryships, Brownite candidates gain selection to safe seats. Last week the Chancellor’s press secretary Ian Austin was chosen to fight Dudley North while his policy adviser Ed Miliband secured Doncaster North. This was an interesting contest. Michael Dugher, the Blairite choice with strong connections, started favourite but Brown’s muscle ensured he got trounced. Meanwhile another Downing Street favourite, Liz Lloyd, came last in Bishop Auckland. As Rachel Sylvester, the well-informed Telegraph columnist, noted this week, even BP chief Lord Browne has shifted from Blair to Brown. The Chancellor is slowly squeezing the life out of a bereft Prime Minister. That is what this election is about.