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28 February 2010

How to rally the Tory troops

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

By Jon Bernstein

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!”

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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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