Magazine article The Spectator

Whatever the Polls Say, Tory Optimism Is Not Yet an Oxymoron

Magazine article The Spectator

Whatever the Polls Say, Tory Optimism Is Not Yet an Oxymoron

Article excerpt


William Hague has a problem. The man is just far too reasonable. The Tories' new posters - `You paid the tax, so where are the teachers/trains/policemen?' - are impressive, and may well connect with the public mood. But at the press conference for the launch of the posters, Mr Hague made no attempt to create mood music. Michael Portillo was relaxed and confident, with no hint of self-doubt. But William Hague merely delivered a competent little speech and then dealt crisply with the questions. There was no passion. Yet in effect that was the first press conference in the Tories' election campaign.

How different it would have been under Margaret Thatcher. After assembling her advisers at an early hour, she would have tossed and gored several of them while working herself into a state. She would then have swept into the conference hall and gripped it by the throat. Her aggressive delivery would have provoked a more hostile tone in the questioning, which she would have enjoyed. Electricity would have been generated, in megawatt quantities.

There was none of that on Tuesday. Mr Hague's presentation sounded like a seminar at a college of accountancy. Do not tell Ann Widdecombe, but before letting her Leader out on the stump, they are going to have to slip something into his feed.

Behind the flat delivery, there were good points. All Labour governments believe that tax and spend is the only way to produce decent public services, said Mr Hague, but `this one has tested that theory to destruction'. He pointed out that three and a half years ago there were 2,500 more policemen than there are now, on a lower Home Office budget. This illustrates the point that it is not the volume of spending which matters, but the way in which the money is spent.

Inevitably, Messrs Hague and Portillo were asked where they would cut spending. Mr Portillo provided the answer, which should become one of the key points in the Tory campaign. Labour intend to spend an additional L68 billion over the next three years. The Tories were proposing a lower figure: L60 billion. To call an extra L60 billion a spending cut was 'a vicious abuse of the English language', said Michael Portillo. He was right. It could indeed be argued that a L60 million spending increase would be a vicious abuse of the British taxpayer, but we are now in an electoral auction, which is not only the politicians' fault. To judge by the poll evidence, a majority of voters will insist on being bribed with their own money.

Sixty billion pounds ought to be a large enough bribe, and it makes a nonsense of Labour's claim that the Tories are proposing to cut spending by L16 billion. But nonsense can be turned into good propaganda. It is not yet clear which party will manage to implant its figure on the public consciousness: Labour with its L16 billion reduction, or the Tories with their L60 billion increase. That battle of the numbers could swing quite a few votes, and the Tories are now more optimistic about their ability to win it than they were a month ago. Tory optimism is not yet an oxymoron.

The party's strategists believe that, whatever the polls say, they can detect a shift in the public mood. They may be right. Mr Blair is beginning to grate on a lot of people who used to be in awe of him. Until recently they thought him sincere; now they find him slick and smarmy. But this does not mean that they would like a change of government. Though they may be less impressed than they expected both with the Prime Minister and with his performance, they have not yet run out of patience. …

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