Between the revolution and the firing squad, there is always time for a bottle of champagne. In this case, it was Sky TV’s champagne at its summer party on Monday evening. Though a lot of Tory MPs turned up, I did not find one who was cheerful about his party’s prospects. There is a difference between the current outbreak of Tory malaise and its predecessors. On those occasions, even while raging and bemoaning, most Tory MPs thought that there was a solution: different policies or a fresh leader. Now, as one shadow minister put it, there are no new levers to pull.
Tory MPs would find all this easier if they felt that they were losing to a worthy opponent, but almost all of them are sincere in their belief that this is a bad government. They can cite plenty of support for that thesis. The Butler report could be subtitled ‘How not to run a government’. Evidence mounts as to the waste of money in almost every department of state. Last week, Gordon Brown boasted that he was providing more money for defence. This week, Geoff Hoon announced that there would be less defence. ‘Spend more, deliver less’; that should be the Blair government’s slogan.
Yet none of this seems to have much effect on public opinion. According to the poll evidence, the voters do not think well of the government. They also believe that Mr Blair lies to them. But they do not really mind. That has been Tony Blair’s greatest achievement. He has presided over a marked increase in public cynicism about politics without suffering significant damage to his own electoral prospects. As people lose faith in Mr Blair, they merely conclude that all politicians are the same. So why not stick with this lot?
In view of that, the Tory position is almost hopeless — but not yet absolutely so. There are still two grounds for avoiding the deadly sin of despair. The first is Gordon Brown: that baleful, gloomy, brooding presence, forever nursing his wrath to keep it warm. I do not know what is going on in the Chancellor’s mind, but nor does Mr Blair; nor, I suspect, does Mr Brown himself. All we do know is that he is the most dangerous earthquake fault-line east of Los Angeles. If we switched on the radio one morning to learn that Mr Brown had resigned in the night, the news would be more shocking than surprising.
It is not as bad for Tony Blair as it was for John Major, who had to spend five years in No. 10 wondering when Edwina Currie would sell her story. But no prime minister can be comfortable with the thought that at any moment some probably imagined slight might goad his chancellor into blowing a hole in the government.
Assuming, however, that Mr Brown keeps his pique under control at least until the election, the Tories will have to fall back on Plan B. There is no choice. They will have to recast the language of politics.
In 1967, young Winston Churchill was the Tory candidate at the Manchester Gorton by-election. Ten years later, Tory agents were still citing that campaign as an example of how not to do it. Mr Churchill had been full of energy. At his morning press conferences there were batteries of microphones. He forced the national media to pay attention while he charged around Gorton razzing the matazz. That was the trouble. He did it far too well. The turnout was over 72 per cent and Labour held the seat, during a Parliament when the Tories found it easy to win by-elections. The agents’ view was that Gorton would have fallen even if the turnout had been 60 per cent. But young Winston’s energetics succeeded in energising the Labour core vote.
Compare that with Leicester South, a week ago. No by-election has ever been more vigorously contested. For three weeks, there were more Tory MPs per square yard in that constituency than there would have been in the White’s tent at Ascot in the old days. Yet the turnout was under 42 per cent. Even at the general election, when it was an impregnably safe seat, more than 48 per cent had bothered to vote. That by-election result measures the scale of the growth in political apathy in recent years. It also suggests that there will be a further fall in turnout at the next election.
Some of this is due to contentment. People who are happy enough with their lot and do not feel threatened by any party see no need to vote. But large numbers of voters are thoroughly disillusioned with the language and practices of politics. To them, the way that their governors — and aspirant governors — act and talk has all the obscurity of Harry Potter’s Quidditch and none of the charm.
It may be that this surly electoral mood is too settled to be remediable by anything short of an economic crisis. But the Tories must force themselves to believe otherwise. Like a good bridge player in an apparently hopeless contract, they have to assume that the cards are where they need them to be. They have to base their strategy on the conviction that enough of the millions of voters who have abandoned the political marketplace since 1992 can be persuaded to return, and that an abstaining voter is a volatile voter.
One reason for mass abstention is the belief that politicians not only lie; they patronise. Voters cannot bear being talked down to. There is a lot of resentment about the dumbing-down of politics, and a potential willingness to blame Tony Blair.
So Michael Howard should now instruct his bright youngsters in Central Office — there are plenty of them — to throw away the style books and to discard every existing political formulation. Even voters who do not know the meaning of the word ‘cliché’ recognise one when they hear it from a politician. Central Office ought to spend August melting down its entire vocabulary and then re-minting it.
Thought should also be given to a political tactic which is so unusual that it might well confound the Tories’ opponents: the truth. After all, there is no reason to exaggerate the Blair government’s domestic failings; an understated factual record should be good enough to inflict discredit. Nor is it necessary to claim that Mr Blair was malevolent from the outset. Not so; he was merely shallow. He genuinely did want to reform the public services, but he had not thought through the task and it proved too big for him, which is why he shifted from substance to spin.
The Tories will need to present a convincing account of Britain as it is now in fresh and honest language. They will need to set out their own policies in realistic terms, without making implausible promises. They will have to reconnect with people’s aspirations. They will have to make people angry. They have about two months to complete these small tasks, in good time for the party conference.
As there is no alternative, they ought to get cracking right away.