Magazine article The Spectator

The Election Sprint Has Turned into a Marathon. Can Dave Keep the Lead?

Magazine article The Spectator

The Election Sprint Has Turned into a Marathon. Can Dave Keep the Lead?

Article excerpt

For a man whose economic policies had once again been stolen by the government, George Osborne looked unusually cheery as he delivered the opposition response to the pre-Budget report on Tuesday. Alistair Darling had brazenly claimed as his own the Tories' new ideas: raising the inheritance tax threshold, an airline levy and taxing foreign financiers. But to the shadow chancellor, this theft represented victory. 'From this day on, ' he declared, 'let there be no doubt who is winning the battle of ideas.' It was a fair point. Mr Darling had spent the first half of his speech denouncing Conservative policy and the second half aping it. Conspicuous by its absence was the mysterious 'vision for change' which Gordon Brown had promised as he cancelled the election last weekend. The only vision was of deteriorating public finances, and the largest deficit in western Europe. The spending review had been the Prime Minister's best chance to recover from the disaster of last weekend. As Mr Osborne already sensed, he had blown it.

The tables of British politics have, once again, turned in the space of just a few weeks.

David Cameron has been transformed from the affable leader of a suicide mission into a potential prime minister. Mr Brown is no longer seen as a titan led by a moral compass, but a hesitant bungler. In all the excitement, few have noticed that the Liberal Democrats have weakened to the point of total collapse.

Everyone is now working to a new timetable, with an election expected not on 1 November, but in 2009, or even 2010.

Much of the damage to Mr Brown is, of course, self-inflicted. Not since Jim Callaghan sang 'Waiting at the Church' to the baffled TUC congress in 1978 has the decision not to hold an election been surrounded by so much drama. With striking honesty, Mr Brown's aides last week admitted an election would be called if the opinion poll numbers were right. And with striking dishonesty, Mr Brown has spent the last few days claiming he delayed because he had not yet conveyed his 'vision'. This mantra is incredible to the point of comedy.

The election decision overshadowed all the Prime Minister's attempts at recovery last week. The spending review -- delayed for more than a year -- looked like little more than the abandoned launch pad for a cancelled election campaign. The Iraq statement had the whiff of unseemly politicking. At his press conference on Monday the PM said he would have won an election, had he run. Yet the cameras picked up his handwritten note which said 'could' have won. The all-important element of doubt is, of course, why he did not run.

In another era, Mr Cameron could have released a live chicken into the chamber to make his point. But at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Mr Cameron acted as if he had found a live chicken, in the shape of the Prime Minister, and grabbed it by the neck. For most of the week, the Labour benches have maintained a stony silence. It is not just that the MPs are embarrassed about the disingenuous manner in which the election was cancelled. Almost all of them do not have a clue how, precisely, Mr Brown intends to recover -- and whether the damage already sustained will prove permanent.

Mr Brown has been in a foul mood (no pun intended) since returning from Labour party conference -- flouncing, wincing and making late-night protests to editors of newspapers whose front pages displease him. The ultraviolence which goes on behind the scenes has reached levels not seen since the botched coup against Tony Blair last year. Mr Brown's aides are each trying to avoid blame, and seem to have agreed like a pack of school bullies to finger Douglas Alexander, the election co-ordinator. A bloody cycle of reprisals may be about to begin.

Deliciously, we can see the first glimpse of a new Labour split. There are grumblings among older Labour hands that Mr Brown only trusts his small, handpicked entourage and does not take advice from (or even acknowledge) outsiders. …

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