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3 May 2010updated 12 Oct 2023 10:13am

Cameron rejects Blair’s 1997 mantra of no complacency

Might the media narrative of “Tories in unstoppable momentum” backfire?

By James Macintyre

The two lines I most vividly remember hearing from Tony Blair on the eve of the 1997 general election are: “No complacency — even now” and “Take nothing for granted — until it’s won”.

Blair banned talk of winning, and admitted to his son that he was poised to become Prime Minister only when “it was clear we were gonna win, and win pretty big”, I recall him telling some documentary. This, despite Blair’s soaring poll ratings, with Labour barely ever under 50 per cent in the months before taking office.

In stark contrast, David Cameron’s strategists, who have in the past boasted of having read the Blair copybook, are spinning that the Tories now have “unstoppable momentum” in the final days of the campaign.

The message, which comes in spite of — or perhaps because of — unsolid poll ratings, is being hungrily lapped up by some sections of the media, so much so, indeed, that the Murdoch-owned, Tory-supporting Times had to change its headline about Cameron talking of winning.

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To some critics, there is a sense of entitlement about this: a sense, in the words of the headline above an intriguing Sunday Telegraph profile, of Cameron being “born to be prime minister”.

Here, for example, is Alastair Campbell:

So today’s polls have the Tories at 33 and 34 per cent. This after a final debate which, thanks to skewed polls, the media gave (spuriously) to David Cameron; after the biggest poster campaign in modern electoral history; after a set of weekend papers and TV effectively anointing him as Prime Minister, topped by Andrew Marr telling Mr Home-and-Dry that he was “on a roll”.

Mr Cameron’s language, verbal and body, was all pointing in the same direction yesterday, talking about his first Queen’s Speech, the tone of his government and so forth. One word screamed out from the screen — arrogance, entitlement, Downing Street here I come.

But it is the very idea of a Cameron government that is stopping the momentum towards it. What’s more, the resistance to the idea appears to be enhanced by the media coverage, which is becoming a bigger issue.

The Tories’ entire strategy for the weekend was to create a sense of unstoppable momentum. After a few tough days for Labour, the Tory hope was that our activists would simply give up the fight. But the opposite seems to have happened. The desire to stop the Tories is strong. Canvassers all around the country report that people are asking how best to vote to stop a Cameron government. It means that in the Tory/Labour marginals that will decide the outcome, hopes remain high.

Now, many will dismiss Campbell as partisan: and he certainly is that. But he has a point, and he also knows a thing or two about what message a political party should be putting across.

The conventional wisdom says that the electorate likes winners. But my sense is that the British people sometimes appreciate underdogs, too. And that Blair and Campbell were certainly right to warn obsessively against complacency.

Footnote: Look out for my piece on the Tories in this week’s magazine, out tomorrow instead of the usual Thursday.

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