The Prime Minister could declare war and no one would notice – goes an old Westminster joke, usually attributed to Tony Blair – as long as the announcement is contained in a speech entitled “Rising to the Skills Challenge”.
The point is not that Blair was an obsessive militarist (although his critics say he was). It is that worthy but vital things the government does go unreported. The Westminster news juggernaut doesn’t brake for policies that outrage no one. Journalists won’t read a speech about the skills challenge unless they are briefed by a reliable source that it contains a declaration of war.
Politicians complain about the lack of attention paid to policy while feeding the cult of personality. The recent front-bench reshuffles illustrate the point. Downing Street let it be known that personnel changes were being made to boost the number of women and MPs with northern accents speaking on behalf of the Conservative Party. Their elevation served a cosmetic function, rebutting the view of the Tories as a club for southern men.
If that looks like a denigration of the other talents candidates for ministerial office might possess, it is. They certainly aren’t there to make policy. Independent thought is seen in Downing Street as a kind of nervous tic – best ignored since it cannot be helped, while criticism only causes offence. David Cameron has got better at pretending to listen to his MPs but in reality he sets the Tory agenda almost exclusively in consultation with George Osborne and Lynton Crosby, the party’s election strategist. The value of a policy is measured by its utility as a weapon against the opposition. Does it neutralise an Ed Miliband attack or trap him on the wrong side of public opinion? No 10 aides boast that campaign strategy and policymaking are now inseparable.
In that context, the job of MPs and ministers is to receive and repeat the message: Conservatives are fixing the economy for the benefit of hard-working people, whom Labour betrays with mass immigration, welfare profligacy and debt. Most Tories submit to this regime because they like the punchy tone and because it makes a change from the pre-Crosby routine of rolling incompetence punctuated with civil war.
Only a handful of dissidents worry about the stultifying effect of monolithic messaging between now and the election. Crosbyism is not conducive to responsible government in the long or even medium term. It is a system for spiking Nigel Farage’s guns and fomenting fear of Labour in order, they hope, to scrape over the electoral finish line in 2015.
There is a parallel problem on the opposition side. Ed Miliband insists that his “one nation” vision is an agenda for social and economic transformation on an epic scale. His shadow cabinet reshuffle was meant to raise the profile of MPs who were elected in 2010, and so clean of contamination by the old clan fighting between “Blairites” and “Brownites”. The impulse to prove that those rivalries are obsolete is sound. The danger is that the price for doing so is burial of policy questions that Miliband deems divisive. At the top of that list is discussion of how, in practical terms, Labour would run big-spending departments without big spending.
Ed Balls has committed the party to Budget discipline. That doesn’t answer the question of what the state could be doing better, or not at all. Labour insiders say it is hard to pin Miliband down on that topic even in private conversations. His advisers insist that a “one nation” story will be told about fixing broken government as well as intervening in broken markets; just not yet. For the time being, public-sector reform is treated as a lower-tier issue; an obsession for the kind of people who read speeches about “rising to the skills challenge”.
But Miliband needs more than paper pledges of fiscal rectitude. People vote Labour when they don’t trust the Conservatives to look after schools and hospitals or to provide a social safety net. Many are less minded to vote Labour now because they accept the claims that there isn’t any money for schools, hospitals or social security and that the more pressing task is national belt-tightening. For that, they turn to the Tories. Miliband cannot separate the question of responsible budgeting from innovation in public services because being serious about one demands seriousness about the other.
The temptation is to gloss over that challenge. In the past few weeks, Miliband’s stock has risen. His pledge to cap energy prices proved that popularity is not the same as free-market orthodoxy. His battle with the Daily Mail over poisonous allegations about his late father proved that popularity is not the same as conservative reaction.
Those achievements may bring floating voters to look at Miliband afresh but their likeliest impact will be in giving Labour-leaning people new reasons to vote Labour. That is better than giving them reasons to sit at home or vote Liberal Democrat. In much the same way, Crosby’s aggressive message discipline will succeed largely in persuading Tory-leaning people to vote Tory, which, from Cameron’s point of view, is an improvement on watching them vote Ukip.
Still, neither Cameron nor Miliband seems serious about finding reasons why anyone with an existing inclination to one side should actually consider switching to the other. They claim to talk about the future while their opponent is wedded to the past but the future they have in mind is a campaigning construct – a sun-drenched Never-Never Land of balanced budgets, gleaming hospitals, well-policed borders, higher wages, lower bills, new homes, fairer taxes. And the real future, which begins the day one of them flops into Downing Street with a flimsy mandate and a manifesto full of show policies that were crafted to destabilise the enemy party or appease an unappeasable fringe? On that future there is silence.