The Tories are quite right to point out that, when it comes to repairing the public finances, Labour are making it up as they go along. Unfortunately, so are they. Pete thinks that, despite this, the Tories still have the advantage and he may well be right. But if, for now anyway, a hung parliament looks more likely than it did a month ago, that's surely because of Tory mistakes rather than any brilliant manoevre from the government or any game-changing shift in the underlying economic fundamentals.
And there have been Tory blunders. Consider the famous poster*:
At first glance, it looks good doesn't it! But no, it's a terrible poster because...
1. It's too complicated and too clever by half. It bundles four ideas in a single package: A) The country is fucked, B) And almost bankrupt, C) But the NHS needn't worry about this and D) I'm the chap who can sort it all out. I won't even need to wear a tie.
2. The problem is that if A and B are true then C must be false and if C is false then D probably can't be true either.
3. The message is also a problem. It suggests: We know we need to reduce the long-term deficit, but don't worry, none of the stuff you like will be touched. There will be no money for jam but we'll make sure there's plenty for sweeties.
4. In other words, it wants to make a serious point about the seriousness of the deficit and then contradicts that seriousness by promising that the Tories won't cut anything that's popular. Then it asks us to take this as a sign of the party's seriousness about confronting long-term serious problems. Consequently, the poster, rather unfortunately, demonstrates a lack of seriousness.
5. Which in turn makes it harder, not easier, to draw a contrast with a government that is just as keen to talk about "cuts" while promising additional spending in popular areas. This poster doesn't draw a contrast with the government's approach, it eliminates it.
6. It's also defensive. It allows that the party isn't always or entirely trusted on health and implicitly concedes that, in spending terms at least, voters' suspicions that the Tories shouldn't be trusted on health are well-founded. Otherwise why would you need to make such a show of protecting the NHS budget? Some voters may conclude that, in their hearts, the Tories really would like to cut NHS spending but as a matter of political expediency/reality accept that they can't. So, for some voters, a poster designed to show how much the Tories have changed actually shows how little they have.
7. And that just makes them look opportunistic.
So if the polls really are narrowing and the Tories are only (only!) eight points ahead, it may be because voters appreciate that there are few appetising options at this election and that the more the Tories talk and the more they blunder about on spending and all the rest of it the more it is apparent that no-one can have any great confidence in either party tackling the all-too-apparent problems we face with real candour or honesty.
This poster is hardly the only example of this failure, of course, but it's a notable one nonetheless and not least because it was the Tories' opening shot in this exhausting, dispiriting campaign. The implied and underlying messages it sent, however, suggest that Central Office and Steve Hilton need to up their game. So, of course, does David Cameron.
*It is, as I've mentioned before, especially ridiculous that these posters have also appeared in Scotland given that Cameron will have no control of the Scottish NHS budget. Even if he wanted to cut its budget he couldn't. The Tory posters up here, then, demonstrate a tone-deaf, London-led approach that presumes that voters are too stupid to appreciate that Cameron is promising something he can't possibly deliver. That many of them may be that dim doesn't matter as much as the sense among better-informed voters that they're being taken for fools and patronised by the Conservatives. In any case, if and when the block grant is squeezed then, rightly or fairly or not, Cameron will be blamed anyway. So he'd be better off, north of the border, avoiding this sort of thing.