“However much you dance around the ring, at some point you’ll come within reach of a big clunking fist” jeered Tony Blair during the Queen’s Speech debate last week. The “dancer” is of course the Tory leader, David Cameron; the “clunker”, we assume, is Gordon Brown, now Blair’s anointed successor.
The remark told us all we need to know about the PM’s real views on what kind of fist Gordon Brown would make of the leadership. The image is of a great, lumbering brute who would stumble around the ring until one of his hay-makers finally made contact and laid the opposition out. More George Foreman than Muhammad Ali. Well, you couldn’t see the Chancellor floating like a butterfly, could you?
Mind you all these boxing metaphors are themselves desperately clunking and cliched. I can’t understand why New Labour - which is so astute about image - doesn’t see that the macho political imagery they increasingly use plays straight into the hands of the Conservatives.
During the Queen’s Speech debate, Tony Blair mocked Cameron for being soft on crime and terror: “Hope’s not built on talking about 'sunshine'”, he said,”any more than antisocial behaviour is combated by, quotes, ‘love’”. But talking about love and sunshine is exactly what the Cameroon Tories want to be accused of.
They are fed up being the “nasty party”. David Cameron’s mission has been to moderate the Tory image, to make them seem like a party that cares as well as condemns; that is capable of understanding as well as meting out punishment. Labour is helping them make this essential programmatic change.
Every time the Home Secretary, John Reid, opens his mouth to sneer at the idea of “hugging a hoodie”, he is worth a few thousand more votes for the Tories - mainly from women. The voters may say that they are worried about crime, and even in a state of fear about terrorism, but that doesn’t mean they want to turn the clock back to the 1980s.
Others have pointed out the similarities between Tony Blair’s final Queen’s Speech performance last week and the last great Dispatch Box appearance by Margaret Thatcher in November 1990. I was there, and I remember the huge emotion as she turned to her own front bench and declared “You know, I’m enjoying this!”, to the very ministers who had just brought her down in a cabinet coup. Blair displayed the same parliamentary chutzpah.
This goes down well with the hacks. But there’s no evidence that a modern electorate would relish a return of Thatcherite social conservatism. The Prime Minister is making the mistake of assuming that because it goes down well with the Sun and the Daily Mail, hard talk wins votes. If it did, the Tories would never have lost office.
If being tough on immigrants, terrorists and hoodies was the key to winning elections, why didn’t Michael Howard win the last one? The Conservatives under their last three leaders - Howard, Duncan Smith, Hague - tried to modernise, but each time ended up going to the country on the old platform of law and order, race and tax - and they failed miserably every time. Essentially, this is because they have unable to convince enough of us that they have, indeed, changed.
It was Michael Portillo who first told the Conservatives back in 1998 what they didn’t want to hear. That they would have to learn how to be tolerant and show that they ‘care’ - about sexual minorities, the underprivileged, the young offender. In David Cameron, the Tories have the first leader who has got Portillo’s message.
And that’s why we may hear a lot more about love and sunshine, especially after Gordon Brown takes over. “It is seldom difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman and a ray of sunshine.”, as PG Wodehouse famously put it. The Conservatives think that there is an air of gloom and glower about the Chancellor which could be his undoing. They may be right.
Cameron is an advertising man by trade and understands that people often vote on emotional rather than rational grounds. They support political personalities they feel comfortable with. Americans famously voted for George W. Bush because he won the “would-you-share-a-drink-with-him” test. Unfortunately, he didn’t pass the “would-you-go-to -war-with-him” test.
Tony Blair used to be a master of the soft sell, the halting, “honest kind of a guy” who seemed so agreeable and chappish. Women liked him precisely because he wasn’t a thumping clunker like most Labour politicians. Unfortunately, he turned out to have rather more serious failings, such as a proclivity to invade countries for the wrong reasons.
Gordon Brown , sitting there with his crumpled face and his beetle brow, looks anything but congenial. As it happens, he is a very agreeable person to share a pint with, but in public the Chancellor is often stiff and unrelaxed. His delivery at the Dispatch Box is unrelenting. He defeats opponents by overwhelming intellectual force, tying them in contradictions and then burying them under fact after fact.
There’s no way that the Tories can take on Brown over the economy - he has destroyed shadow chancellors at the rate of nearly one a year since Labour took office. But what the Tories can do is suggest that, while Brown might be the man you want in charge of the nation’s finances, he may not be the man you want in Number Ten.
Brown’s is not the face of middle England; at least not as it likes to see itself. Too austere, too threatening. Then there is all that stuff about him being “delusional”, “a control freak”, “unable to listen” , according to former ministerial colleagues like Charles Clarke and David Blunkett. The voters don’t want someone in charge of the country who doesn’t listen, or has “psychological flaws”.
Brown even makes me uncomfortable. His first reaction on hearing of the acquittal of Nick Griffin of the BNP was to say that the law needed to be changed. That was a telling insight into his psychology of government. If someone disagrees with you, you don’t listen and reflect; you change the law to make them agree.
Without debate Brown has announced that he intends to replace Trident, accept 90 day detention without trial, introduce ID cards, opt for more nuclear power stations. Last week he declared he was going to set up an entirely new apparatus to tackle terrorism - a kind of ministry of fear- in which he would be in complete control. This is just a little sinister.
The instinct of the government since 9/11 has been to curb the very civil liberties we are supposed to be fighting for, and Brown appears to be content to continue. New Labour’s authoritarianism worked politically because Blair always seemed such a reasonable guy, even as he did unreasonable things. Like suspend habeas corpus, introduce detention without charge, mislead the nation over WMD.
Labour think that fear will make us vote for them. But they may be making a very big mistake. People don’t want fear, they want hope. Sounds corny and shallow, but that is what motivates people turn out in the rain to polling booths.
David Cameron may sound wimpish and soft the Commons bear pit, but the people listening outside will be getting the message that he really is different from all previous Conservative leaders. If Gordon Brown is going to have a chance of winning the next general election, he should listen up and lighten up. Faced with a ray of sunshine or a clunker, I know who I would prefer.