There has never been such a dramatic political decline. Three months ago, Tony Blair was full of plans for his third term. Now, he is a corpse waiting for a coffin. Three months ago, the Blairites were blithely dismissive of Gordon Brown. Now, they are frantically sucking up to him.
The PM may have been re-elected, but he has lost all moral authority. The voters are no longer listening; his party is no longer listening. We no longer have a Prime Minister; we merely have Hugh Grant’s understudy. Mr Blair has also lost his political touch. Though he was never good at reshuffles, this one was the botch of botches. There was one positive feature. It reaffirmed the government’s commitment to recycling rubbish. But Mr Blair even managed to sack Paul Murphy, one of his few successful Cabinet ministers, replacing him in Ulster with Peter Hain. It is impossible to conceive of a worse appointment. The choice of Mr Hain suggests that Mr Blair is losing interest in governing, as does the decision to send John Prescott to Moscow. There was a time when that might have been appropriate. Mr Prescott does look like an old-fashioned politburo wife. But to represent HMG at one of the most important celebrations in modern Russian history: ludicrous. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister, as opposed to going through the motions, he would have known whom to send: himself. If he cannot even get that right, he will not get anything right and the quicker he goes the better.
So a lot of Tories are now assuming that the next election is already won. That might sound absurdly rash, yet it could turn out to be true, subject to a few, by no means impossible, conditions. To ensure a victory, the Tories have to take steps, but none of them is that difficult. They must win the battle for history, bury the ‘c’ word and use the correct version of a Latin tag.
Traditional Tories did not care who wrote political history as long as they were the ones who made it. Then New Labour realised that in order to influence the vote, you must capture the narrative. That recent political concept is viewed with suspicion by Peter Oborne and others, who associate it with New Labour lies. Yet there is no reason that the Tories should not prevail by telling a truthful narrative. It would run something like this. New Labour came to power with a sincere desire to reform the public services. But the task proved too much for them. They allowed themselves to be seduced from the hard challenges to the easy lure of spin and headlines. Eight years later, this has demoralised the Civil Service, corrupted the governmental process and wasted a great deal of money.
That last point is crucial. I doubt if one voter in ten knows just how much money this government is spending. The Tories must tell them, eschewing the jargon of billions and percentages of GDP. The figure is nearly £600,000,000,000. Once it is set out like that on the page, it looks like an interminable freight train. There is another way of expressing it: more than £10,000 a year for every man, woman and child in the country. I found it a useful canvassing aid to point out to a family of four that the government was spending £40,000 a year on their behalf and to ask whether they were receiving value for money. The answer was predictable. If those two facts, the £10,000 and the six plus all the noughts, are implanted in the voters’ minds, it will never again be possible for Labour politicians to claim that public expenditure is a frail plant which would not survive a Tory government.
The ‘c’ word would have lost its potency, as in ‘c’ for cuts. ‘Tory cuts’ was one of the most untrue political slogans of all time, which did not prevent it from being one of the most damaging. If the public were made aware of the facts, there need be no more damage. That brings us to the Latin tag. Fortiter in re, suaviter in modo was always good advice but Margaret Thatcher inverted it. While she had a cautious and pragmatic approach to the public services — she could indeed be criticised for insufficient radicalism — her rhetoric and even more her body language enabled the cuts myth to flourish. As Chris Patten complained in the early 1980s, she always managed to sound like Count Dracula even though she was running a blood transfusion service.
The Tories ought to say to the electorate that the government is already spending enough money to guarantee world-class health, first-class education and an effective police force, if only the cash was properly used. If the government would also stop wasting so much money, it should also be possible to afford some tax cuts.
It is to be hoped that the candidates for the Tory leadership keep that message in mind. It is also to be hoped that they conduct themselves as if they were carrying on a vigorous debate among friends, and avoid sounding like the children of Israel setting out to smite the Amalekites. It is far too early to decide who ought to be the Tory leader, and Michael Howard has cunningly given all the candidates a chance to impress their colleagues. The colleagues would be well advised to pay great attention to the beauty contest.
George Osborne has been given the greatest and most perilous opportunity. He would be unwise to launch a frontal assault on Gordon Brown too early. If a matador launches a premature attack on a bull, he ends up as a dead matador — and Mr Brown is still a formidable bull. But he is open to mockery, especially as his economic record seems more and more dubious. Over the next few months, Mr Osborne should act as a banderillero, ensuring that by the autumn Mr Brown’s shoulders are soaked in blood. Then the kill might be feasible.
It should not be impossible for David Cameron to demolish Ruth Kelly. At least half of the current Tory MPs will know little about Malcolm Rifkind. They are about to be reminded that he is a formidable debater. David Davis will have another opportunity to prove that his qualities are equal to his ambitions. There will be other strong candidates: political aficionados are in for a fascinating spectacle. But the Tories would be foolish to allow it to be presented as a Left versus Right divide. All the serious candidates are Eurosceptics; even Mr Rifkind would claim to be one. As for tax cuts, there may be differences, but they relate to about 1 per cent of GDP; hardly a fundamental ideological split. Nor is the social divide between the rest and the so-called Notting Hill set, few of whom live there, anything like as great as some mischievous commentators have suggested.
If the Tory party is sensible, the leadership debate could be used as a relaunch platform, developing the themes which will be crucial to the party’s prospects at the next election. That should be a less difficult task than it sounds. Then again, no one should underestimate the Tory party’s ability to trip over its own feet and talk itself into trouble.