I can remember when I first heard Tony Blair speak on the floor of the House of Commons as shadow home secretary. Even then, I detected something phony about Tony, something that didn't quite ring true. It must have been just me because he won and won big. In addition, he had broken the mould.
The Blair Project demonstrated that a leadership could just lead and ignore the base: those people who trudge around with leaflets from doorstep to doorstep in all weathers, who still BELIEVE. The leadership didn't need them, it could create a new base, a new group of voters at election time by cobbling together myriad people from hither and yon, lure them in with a bit of spin, a bit of jargon.
That a senior Labour Party official admitted to me years later: "We knew that Blair hated Labour. We made a Faustian pact", came as no surprise. It was obvious. Although I became a citizen in order to help vote the Tories out in '97, I was always uneasy about New Labour.
And then out of the ashes of Michael Howard's and William Hague's and Iain Duncan Smith's crashed leaderships, arose 'David Cameron's Conservatives'. I used to live in west London and recall some campaign in Hammersmith - a by-election or a local one - in which the Tory candidate actually campaigned as a 'David Cameron Conservative'. And why not? Who could forget the Tory Party Conference when Cam strode about onstage doing a Steve Jobs kind of thing where you make it look like it's coming out of you unedited right then and there. No wonder they elected him leader, he was the epitome of change.
In fact he was so good that the Lib Dems scrambled to find a look-a-like to replace the thoroughly decent and competent Ming Campbell. Cameron was setting the pace. He ripped out that Thatcher conviction-blue motif and replaced it with a squiggly, green, smudgy, abstracty, tree-thingy logo. It was Cameron who almost rose up and yelled "Bravo, maestro!" at the conclusion of Mr. Tony's resignation speech in the Commons. Who'd have thunk it, an 'Heir to Blair' would wind up leading the Conservative Party. Not Labour. But that was then. And this is now.
Now we are in the era of the death of the Cameron Project, given new urgency by George Osborne as he fights to save his credibility, his very political life. Osbornomics - the attempt to front-load austerity and have a GDP left after it's all over - has missed almost every target and prediction it has ever made. Standard & Poor's are still awarding the UK its AAA status but the outlook is and remains negative. You may ask why anyone would pay attention to ratings agencies. Well, yeah, you're right, but it was Osborne who kept going on about them, how we should judge his success by their assessment of his policy. It was a dumb thing to bet the ranch on but Cameron didn't stop him. Now that Osbornomics has failed even by its own parameters, and the right of the party and traditional Tories have had it with the both of them, Cameron has to Do Something.
That Something is a new strategy which takes a little bit from here and a little bit from there. Mostly from there: America and Australia. Osborne in his latest big speech refers to "the British People" - a Tea Party tactic. By calling your supporters "the British People" you imply that your opponents aren't. Fox News does this with its "the American People" jibe all the time. And then there is what political advisors call the dog whistle, the favourite of Australian politics in which you signal your core base by deploying very simple and simplistic key words complete with basic visuals, like "strivers" and "shirkers" and "curtains drawn". The media then pick the terms and the images up and it becomes currency.
This worked, so now Osborne is trying out a kind of Mockney accent and using the example of a child-killer to damn everyone on benefits. Who knows where this will end, but one thing's for sure: David Cameron is discovering that his only hope lies in what he tried to change.
Step up to the plate, The Nasty Party.
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