David Cameron’s all-over-the-shopness continues apace, with one of his ‘strategists’ (sic) briefing that his new ‘strategy’ (sic) is to steal any good ideas put forward by Labour. In tones reminiscent of the tough-talking Lynton Crosby, the strategist briefs that Cameron will take the bones, and leave Labour with the gristle. Mmm, tasty. But clever? Not so sure.
Crosby has had a very good press of late, credited with delivering Boris Johnson’s re-election as London Mayor, and with sharpening the Tory operation, and hardening Cameron’s approach to life and politics. But as I see Cameron lurch rightwards with his anti-immigrant rhetoric, his EU referendum, and his dismissal of once precious environmental strategies as ‘green crap,’ I am reminded of the 2005 general election campaign when Labour, despite all the problems over Iraq which dominated large parts of the campaign, were blessed with one of the worst Opposition campaigns in history as Crosby took Michael Howard willingly by the nose to a nasty, right-wing, ‘dog-whistle’ campaign. We won, they lost.
As to who wins the next one, so much will depend on the economy, and this week George Osborne takes centre stage. Already the pro-Osborne brigade (oh yes, he has his supporters) are gearing up, and so is he, staring out at me from The Guardian with what looks like an attempt at a friendly smile. I have said before that Labour have helped the Chancellor by failing to rebut his central ‘mess we inherited’ line, which is what allows him to portray low growth and failure on meeting his debt and deficit targets as something of a success. But at what I call the ‘character strategic level,’ Osborne can portray himself, style wise, as the opposite of Cameron, bouncing around from issue to issue, one ‘top priority’ to the next, painting a chaotic picture of a man unclear about his strategy and his purpose. Whereas there are many slogans and strategies associated with Cameron, as I suggested yesterday, Osborne is pretty much Mr Austerity and, er, that’s it.
Cameron is off to China, and nothing wrong with that. But last time he had much to do with China, it was to upset them, by being nice to the Dalai Lama. So now he is proclaiming that the DL words will not cross his lips. Another confused tactical message underlying that the first step was to be seen as touchy-feely back then, but now he wants to get his ‘anything for business’ hat back on. All over the shop. No clear strategy.
Meanwhile, the man most often spoken of as Cameron’s likeliest successor as Tory leader, Boris Johnson, appears to be losing the touch and losing the appeal that allowed him to float above politics for so long. I am indebted to Iain Dale’s Conservative Home column for the best description I have read of Johnson’s latest attempt to unsettle Cameron and get Tory activists to pant for him even more. ‘Boris Johnson made one of the more bizarre speeches of the year when he gave the third Margaret Thatcher lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies on Wednesday,’ wrote Dale. ‘Its aim was clear – to claim the Thatcherite mantle. But having read the speech, it had more than a touch of the Keith Josephs about it. Older readers may remember that Keith Joseph’s Tory leadership ambitions collapsed in 1974 when he made a speech in Preston (I think) referring to the unfortunate breeding habits of classes C and D. Boris used similar inappropriate language referring to the low IQ of 16 per cent of the population and apparently idolising Gordon Gekko, leading to headlines in both the Guardian (which you would expect) and the Daily Mail (which you wouldn’t) declaring GREED IS GOOD! Is this really the message he wants to get over? Having read the whole speech I have to say it was intellectually deficient, full of bizarre conclusions and lacking heft. It wasn’t so much a lecture as a haranguing by the political equivalent of Dame Edna Everage.’
In between preparing his (late) autumn statement, Osborne will have read it too. Indeed, one of the papers reports metaphorical champagne corks popping at the Treasury when news of this – ‘bizarre’ is indeed the word – speech came through. Osborne is never going to win a public popularity contest in the way that Johnson has in the past. Nor does he have Cameron’s slick presentational skills. But this week he will be trying to show that he has something they lack – a plan, that he tries to stick to.