Magazine article The Spectator

Stop Complaining, Start Campaigning

Magazine article The Spectator

Stop Complaining, Start Campaigning

Article excerpt

'Look here, upon this picture, and on this.' Last Sunday there was a striking visual disparity. Tieless, surrounded by pop stars, Tony Blair strode on to the stage. He was going to save Africa.

Earlier in the campaign, the PM had not been on top form. There were rumours that he was suffering from tinted-moisturiser poisoning. But on Sunday he was back to his best. Africa would be rescued, and in as little time as it took him to take off a tie and slap on some make-up. As one listened to the magician, it all sounded so easy: Sudan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda; Aids, corruption, oppression; extortion, torture, Swiss bank accounts - these trifling problems were all effaced, as if by a dab of foundation cream.

Cut to South London, where Michael Howard was speaking at a tabernacle church. He was wearing a tie, and no make-up. Though he swayed to the West Indian music with surprising enthusiasm, there was no magic. Instead, Mr Howard was talking earnestly to the camera about 0.7 per cent of GDP. The two pictures summarised the differences between two men and two campaigns. They also capture the difference between cynicism and dogged-as-does-it decency.

The Tory campaign has been widely criticised, not least by Tory supporters. Some sensitive nostrils wrinkle with distaste. They find it too raucous. Others, more robust, deplore the lack of radicalism. Both of them overlook the difficulties of campaigning.

At moments, every election campaign seems to become a Tolstoyan battle. The strategists at the centre appear marginalised. Success or failure depends on the fighting qualities of individual units cut off in the smoke. The Tory strategists never intended immigration and asylum to play such an important role. They wanted to win some early victories and then move on to new fronts. But everything remained focused on immigration, because it is the issue that aroused the public. This has nothing to do with race. There is a widespread feeling that it is as easy to slip into Britain as it is to steal a postal vote in Birmingham.

Nor had the Tories planned a negative campaign. Though they always intended to raise the question of trust in Tony Blair, this was to be part of a bigger picture. The Tories had hoped that their campaign would resemble a cavalry charge across open country. Instead, it has turned into a slogging match in the Flanders mud.

As a result, the danger which the strategists foresaw is now apparent. The Tories knew that many people were fed up with Tony Blair; they also knew that this would not be enough. The voters not only needed negative reasons for deserting Labour. They needed positive incentives to vote Tory. That aspect of the Tory campaign has not yet reached cruising altitude.

This is not the strategists' fault. One point should now be self-evident. An opposition cannot hope to fight new intellectual battles during an election campaign. It has to initiate and win them months or even years earlier. For the past seven weeks, the Tories have been suffering the consequences of seven years' timidity.

It should not have been impossible to persuade the voters that as long as the economy grew and the government wasted less money, they could have tax cuts and spending increases on desirable public services. A growing cake can satisfy many appetites. As it is, however, Alistair Darling has been able to shake his grey locks and claim that the Tories' promises of £1.7 billion as an incentive to pension savers would create a black hole in the national accounts. …

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