How to rally the Tory troops

Michael Gove didn't deliver a speech, so much as a series of "dog whistles".

When, three months ago, an Ipsos MORI poll for the Observer put the gap between the two main parties at just 6 per cent -- in contrast to the more common double-digit Tory lead -- it was seen as an outlier at best, a freak by most. But now, in the course of seven days, we've seen successive polls showing the Tory lead down to 6, 5 and today -- startlingly -- just 2 points.

The Sunday Times/YouGov poll is the talk of the Conservative party spring conference here in Brighton. Or rather, it's the hushed whisper. Every few yards delegates gather in twos and threes to discuss it; stoicism combines with fatalism and fear. Meanwhile, a BBC crew is barging around a Metropole antechamber "vox popping" on the same subject.

Through into the hall, the atmosphere is subdued (so far). Shadow cabinet ministers take turns to warm up the frigid hall before Dave's appearance: it's a tougher than expected gig for many.

Not for Michael Gove, however, who's got the measure of his audience. The shadow schools secretary doesn't deliver a speech, so much as a series of "dog whistles". Although he summed up his speech, and Tory education policy, as "social justice combined with hard Conservative common sense", it would be more accurate to précis it thus: "Discipline, authority: hurrah. Human Rights Act, health and safety, thugs and Ed Balls: boo hiss!"

Nor did he forget to deploy the "five more years of Gordon Brown" line you will hear a dozen times a day once the official campaign kicks off. And he threw in the spectre of "five more years of Ed Balls" for good measure.

This is an audience that loves to hate a pantomime villain, perfect to take minds off the front page of the Sunday Times. For a while at least.

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood