The Tories think they’re winning – but it’s the coalition that is beating Labour

With a Conservative majority almost certainly out of reach, Cameron must redefine as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

The terrace of the House of Commons, overlooking the Thames, is full of basking Tories these days. As parliament goes into its summer recess, the mood in the Conservative Party has, like the weather, turned sunny with a fierce edge.

David Cameron’s troops feel they are winning battles. On a range of potent issues – the economy, immigration, welfare – the Conservatives comfortably control the debate. They boast that they will cut here and clamp down there, while defying Labour to prove its willingness to do the same. Doubting that those are even the right remedies has become a sideline lament. Labour’s lead in opinion polls looks flimsy.

A measure of the Tories’ confidence is the venom in their attacks on Labour’s record of running the National Health Service. Conservative MPs have used the publication of a review of hospital mortality rates to hurl charges of lethal neglect at Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, who ran the department under Gordon Brown.

Downing Street knows that the public is suspicious of Tory motives towards the NHS. In campaign terms, the best that No 10 can hope for is making it that little bit harder for Labour to occupy the moral high ground. So the attacks on Burnham are a tactic to trash the opposition’s credentials as champions of a cherished national institution. Cameron was once reluctant to be drawn into partisan warfare over the NHS. That squeamishness has gone. The plan now is simpler and applicable in every area, regardless of policy. As one Tory close to No 10 puts it: “We beat Labour to a pulp.”

This bloodlust reflects the influence of Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign strategist who was hired for his mastery of bare-knuckle politics. It is working. Conservative MPs are given regular pep talks by Crosby, in which they are shown encouraging polling numbers and drilled in attack lines. They can see that Labour is under pressure and are happier and more loyal to their leader as a result. It is unclear whether this level of aggression can be sustained over two years without alienating the public. Some Tory moderates worry that Cameron needs to look like a reasonable man governing for the whole nation, not the alpha dog of a snarling pack. Crosby has made the Tories good at hammering but not everything in politics is a nail.

At least bashing Labour is something that every Conservative can agree on. Developing new policies risks reviving the culture war between the party’s “modernisers” and “traditionalists”. Besides, nothing can be enacted this side of a general election without seeking permission from the Lib Dems and granting concessions if they object. Few things animate the rebellious urges of Tories like a reminder of their subordination to Nick Clegg.

Loathing of coalition is deepening on the Conservative benches as more MPs of a certain age feel their chances of ministerial office slipping away for ever. Yet inside government, the power-sharing arrangement feels more stable than it has done in a long time. Insiders from both parties describe the completion of negotiations for last month’s Spending Review as a revelation. Lib Dems and Tories managed to coalesce around a shared set of tricky economic proposals, while fighting partisan policy battles – over deregulation of nursery places, over participation in European Union criminal justice co-operation, over internet surveillance. That choreography, Lib Dem ministers say, should kill off any doubts that the coalition will go the distance. Meanwhile, Cameron and George Osborne are determined to keep open the option of renewing the arrangement for a second term. Senior figures in the government say that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have stared at the electoral arithmetic and realised that, even in best-case scenarios, their reliance on the Lib Dems may endure beyond 2015. To win a majority, Cameron needs to hold on to every voter he had in 2010 – a rare feat for an incumbent – and then win over a bunch of Lib Dem and Labour swing voters and also see off a challenge from Ukip. It is not impossible but it would need the opposition to panic and crumble.

Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record. That will revive the two-against-one dynamic that made it so hard for Labour to get its economic arguments across after the last election – a handicap from which Ed Miliband has yet to recover fully. If the next parliament is hung and Labour is not the biggest party, it will feel like an endorsement of the status quo and so a victory for the combined coalition forces. At that point, backbench Tory hatred of Clegg will become a big problem for Cameron. The pressure to go it alone would be immense. A former Tory cabinet minister tells me: “We are in danger of getting to where we are now in terms of seats, having persuaded people that it’s working, and then not being able to recreate the government that delivered it.”

The last election was kinder to Cameron than it was to his party. He got to be Prime Minister; they had to share power with the Lib Dems – an unforgivable affront. Given Tory misgivings about Cameron, he has done well in recent weeks to instil confidence in his MPs that Labour can be beaten. For his next trick, he needs to persuade them that they can win. That will be tricky, as it will surely require redefining as victory something the Tories have tasted once before as defeat.

"Although the two governing parties will campaign against each other, they will both be defending the same record." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage