Catch your opponent unawares. Hit him with an accusation which he cannot come straight back at and answer. While he flails, change the subject fast. Move to a new charge. Keep changing the subject before your opponent has got to grips with the last one. Be like a Boy David with his sling, light on his feet, dancing round an infuriated Goliath of a rebuttal machine which wheels round too late to hit back.
This was William Hague’s technique at Prime Minister’s Questions when he led the Conservative party. In the Commons it worked. Mr Hague was the last Tory leader able regularly to get the better of Tony Blair. Mr Blair is not easily tripped, so Mr Hague’s success was fun for us parliamentary sketchwriters to report.
The typical exchange went something like this (though I don’t think ‘wanker’ is a parliamentary expression; the implication, however, was there):
William Hague: How many same-day prosecutions at evening sittings have actually been initiated in the magistrates’ courts since 1997?
Tony Blair: What’s important is that crime is falling under Labour and police numbers are up, unlike under the Tories.
WH: He doesn’t know, does he? The answer is ‘none’, which shows that he’s a wanker, so perhaps he could tell us how many of his new City Academies appear in the top 100 of his much-hyped schools league table?
TB: I’m not a wanker, and why doesn’t he talk about crime under the Tories? [shouts of ‘And why don’t you answer the question?’]. I am answering the question [mock-squeals of ‘Ooooh’] — and as for City Academies the point is that they were never supposed to ... [reply lost in laughter].
Mr Speaker: Order!
WH: Oh dear, he doesn’t know the answer to that either, does he? The answer is ‘none’, which shows he’s a double wanker, so perhaps he could remind us of the target he set in May 1997 for average waiting times for hip operations — or is that another case of all mouth and no trousers?
TB: How dare he talk of inaction when the Tories did nothing — [shouts of ‘Hip operations! Hip operations!’] I’m coming to hip operations when I’ve dealt with City Academies, which have been a great success, [shouts of ‘League tables! League tables!’] — and if anyone’s a double wanker it’s him, and as for ...what was it? [jeers of ‘Wake up!’] ...er, hip operations [Health Secretary tries to pass TB a note], we all know why the Tories keep running down the National Health Service, so they can....
Mr Speaker: I must ask the Rt Hon. Gentleman to confine himself to government policy, for which he is responsible. Mr Hague.
WH: Thank you, Mr Speaker, for reminding us of that. I was beginning to wonder [Tory laughter]. But what is this Prime Minister responsible for? A same-day prosecutions policy of whose failure he seems to be unaware? Doubled waiting times for hip operations — because that’s the answer he has just failed to give us? Or missed targets for City Academies, which seem to have escaped his attention too? Doesn’t all this just show, Mr Speaker, that this Prime Minister is all talk and no delivery? [Jubilant Tory roars.]
Well, it isn’t difficult to script; but it’s hard to pull it off every time. But Hague came close to doing so and, outside the Commons in their general election pre-campaign campaign, Michael Howard and his team seem to be using similar tactics towards the same end. New Labour’s head is spinning.
From the attackers’ point of view, momentum is everything, and so far Mr Howard’s Tories are keeping up the momentum well. Look at how nimbly and how fast they have danced in the last few weeks. There was Immigration (quotas); there was Tax (reductions); there was Immigration again (health screening); there was Council Tax (50 per cent reductions for pensioners); there was the War of what’s-her-name’s Arm (I’ve forgotten the poor lady’s name already, and so has most of Britain); and then there was the chief constable of Nottinghamshire complaining about something to do with crime and policing. I can remember that this fellow’s name was Steve Green because it was only this week, but I never did quite latch on to why he was blaming the Home Secretary, and I certainly retain no clear idea of what it was David Davis promised the Tories could do about Nottingham.
But it doesn’t matter: such details don’t — or at least on one level they don’t. If Mr Howard and his team can keep moving fast enough so that the media spotlight has left an issue before Alan Milburn’s new Labour fire brigade have arrived, then an impression is given that the government is being bested.
Nothing more, mark you, than that: an impression of being bested. It doesn’t mean that in any single instance during this fast-paced slide show the voters have reached a settled pro-Tory conclusion before — click — the image on the screen is replaced with another. It doesn’t mean that they do, for example, think Tory immigration plans are viable; that they do consider Tory tax cuts affordable; that they honestly blame individual NHS slip-ups on John Reid; or that they are persuaded that a Tory home secretary could transform policing without imperilling a Tory chancellor’s tax-reduction strategy.
Nor does it mean that, however transient each image may be, the sum of all these quick-flash parts is a positive and abiding impression of what the Conservative party stands for in general. What kind of thing is 21st-century Toryism? What’s the flavour? What’s the tune? Such, anyway, are the questions sceptics will rightly remind us need answering in the end. By giving an impression of besting Blair, the Tories have, I concede, only reached first base.
But my hunch is that in this game this time first base is closer to home base than it may appear. If it is true that the Tories have to maintain momentum, it is equally true that New Labour do too. They live by ‘moving on’, and nobody exemplifies this more than their leader. Like a child’s spinning top, only gyroscopic force keeps him from toppling over, unanchored in any deeper reason for being than that he is.
It follows that if you can rob Tony Blair and his team of their reputation for winning, you have robbed them of everything. They win because they are winners, they are winners because they win. Break that circle, and they may all start falling about and blaming each other.
‘You’d better not look down,’ sang BB King, ‘or you might not keep on flying.’ Michael Howard, David Davis and his team are, as I write, causing Labour to peer worriedly out of the cockpit. I begin to wonder whether the official opposition do have to explain to us what they are; perhaps all they need demonstrate is what the government isn’t.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.