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The zombies of Westminster

Cameron's team sees itself as the good guys but, viewed from the outside, the whole system is decomp

For David Cameron and his inner circle, watching Labour's opinion-poll ratings recover in recent weeks has felt like the final reel of a bad horror film. The foe who is supposed to be dead, gruesomely impaled several times over, lurches back to life and lopes erratically but persistently forward. Team Cameron is still fairly confident that it knows how the movie ends: national polls mask the true electoral picture; the swing is biggest in key marginal seats; Labour gets annihilated in south-east England; the Lib Dems fold in the south-west; the Tories clinch a majority; roll credits.

Yet there is still something deeply unsettling for Cameron about his enemy's resilience. It is as if, having come back from so many disasters - the economic meltdown, the coups, the Prime Minister's violent rage - Labour had developed a weird immunity to bad news. How do you kill a government of the undead?

The answer, as fans of the zombie genre will know, is violent decapitation. In the weeks ahead, the Tory message will focus more fixedly on the need to oust the Prime Minister. That, Cameron immodestly told his party on 28 February, was "a patriotic duty". (So presumably a vote for anyone else is sedition.)

Lipstick on the pig

The Tories have made personal attacks on Brown before, but the coming onslaught will be on a different scale. Cameron's team is beginning to realise that it has been complacent about its boy's ability to charm his way through the campaign. For most of the past four years, whenever the Tory leader has had any media exposure, his personal ratings have gone up. Like clockwork. Labour has had the opposite problem. In last year's European and local elections, candidates kept Gordon Brown's picture off their flyers for fear of contamination.

But time has been Cameron's worst enemy, as many of his other enemies predicted it would be. Four and a bit years is a long stretch to be leader of the opposition. Until the polls tightened recently, the Tories thought their big strategic problem was a matter of tone, not personality. They felt they needed to deliver a harsh message about the Age of Budget Austerity to come, so they would have a mandate to carry out painful spending cuts. But they didn't want to sound too bleak, like the "Nasty Party" of old. They wanted to invite voters to a sunny Promised Land of Change. But the two messages didn't work together. It was like playing a funeral march on a banjo.

That dissonance describes the competing styles of Andy Coulson, Cameron's communications chief, and Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy. Coulson, a former tabloid editor, gives hard, street-fighting counsel. Hilton, a former adman, prefers the softer-focus, PowerPoint pitch. The Tories say the division was never bitter, and has in any case been healed, with Hilton working on post-election strategy and Coulson saddling up for the campaign. One of his main tasks is now to remind voters to hate Brown.

Even the most loyal Labour ministers admit that "five more years of Gordon" is a tough product to sell. Downing Street has been cheered by private polling showing that voters slightly prefer Labour's economic offer, but that mainly reflects confusion, mutating into suspicion over what the Tories would do.

Meanwhile, all the parties have found in focus groups that the Conservative brand is not as "detoxified" as had been thought. In free-association exercises by market researchers where swing voters are invited to pin words or pictures under the headings of the main parties, the Tories get lumped in with country houses, City slickers and snouts in troughs. (And that was before Michael Ashcroft, the Tory deputy chairman and major financier, was confirmed as non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes.)

So the question for Labour is not whether to fight a negative campaign, but where to put the belt so they can punch below it. They need to use mistrust of the Tories to tarnish Cameron. Or, as one Downing Street strategist puts it, they need to present Cameron as "the lipstick on the pig". Labour wants to use the Tory party as a weapon against its leader, and the Tories want to use Labour's leader as a weapon against his party. It won't be edifying, but there is a grim kind of symmetry.

In case it wasn't personal enough, there are the debates. Three televised confrontations between the party leaders over three successive weeks will add unprecedented presidentialism to the campaign. No one knows what the impact will be, but everyone expects it to be huge. The details of the format - questions, audience composition, rules on interruption - have been hammered out in long, tense negotiations
that sound, in the way preconditions were heaped on conditions before agreement could be reached, like the Northern Ireland peace talks, only less fun.

Dawn of the dead

We will hear a lot about "real choices" in the coming campaign. Most of the Labour and Tory rank and file see this election as an ideological battle that was deferred by the long era of Blairite Third Way consensus. They are itching for an updated contest between social democracy and Thatcherism.

But it won't happen. Instead, the conditions are in place for a deeply personal, mostly negative campaign - part beauty contest, part cage fight. It is hard to imagine a set-up better designed to turn off voters, already deeply cynical about politics. In both of the two most recent general elections, the highest national share of the vote was represented by abstentions. "None of the above" won. And that was before the expenses scandal.

In that context, a highly personal campaign could work against Cameron. Nobody expects Brown to restore the nation's faith in the political class, but the Conservative leader is pitching himself as the candidate of change. For that to be credible, he somehow has to appear distinct from the usual, tawdry game. When "they" are all beneath contempt, there is only limited advantage to being the "more charming one".

Cameron's team sees itself as the good guys, battling a living corpse of a government, but, viewed from the outside, the whole system is decomposing. Westminster is a town of the undead. That is a problem for Cameron before and after the election. The thing about a zombie race is that whoever wins is still a zombie.

Rafael Behr is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a senior writer on the Observer

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

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on