Whether it is attacking Britain’s “lazy” workers, blaming the double-dip recession on the rain or taking credit for Olympic gold medals, the Conservative Party appears to have lost any understanding how it is perceived or how to get its message across. Increasingly, it feels as if one man is the primary source of this slide.
George Osborne looks irretrievably damaged: caught between two jobs, Chancellor in the government, strategist for his party, and seemingly incapable of success in either. Aside from his destructive economic principles, his personal involvement in Tory spin has made him the most electorally unappealing politician of recent times.
The former chief whip Lord Ryder recently said of Osborne: “He isn’t a strategist at all; he is a tactician.” But if that is true – and it feels as though it is – tactics don’t seem to be his strong point either. There is now a chasm between a chaotic do-nothing ideology and the language used to promote the illusion of the exact opposite. In April David Cameron spoke of “redoubling his efforts” and “straining every sinew”. Such meaningless guff is designed specifically to mask the reality of economic libertarianism – doing nothing. In May Osborne said he was going to “concentrate” on the economy. In effect the party strategist admitted that those responsibilities meant he had taken his eye off the nation’s most pressing issue. Last month he trumped this by saying – presumably with a misguided eye on football populism – he was focused “110 per cent” on the economy. So the Chancellor also admitted he is not good with figures.
Then a week later Osborne managed to combine these two excruciating expressions, an occurrence so infuriating a super villain would have trouble repressing the urge to destroy planet earth after hearing it. “I think the government now has its opportunity to give its 110 per cent attention, effort and energy to getting the economy moving,” he said, undermining his own credibility in both roles. That Tory spin and strategy appears to be in such a mess was confirmed by reports that Osborne has been taken off duty for the next general election campaign.
This kind of panicky muddle is usually associated with the dog days of a second-term government. There is nothing positive to say other than “we are working hard”. This might wash with core Conservatives, but the drip-drip of disingenuous soundbites and aggressive, accusatory politics such as backbench MPs calling British workers “idlers” who need to be more like their Chinese counterparts will not work on undecided or swing voters and compounds every publicly held prejudice about the leading figures of the party.
Osborne’s relationship with Cameron has two things in common with that of Mycroft Holmes to his younger brother, Sherlock. The first is that like Mycroft, Osborne is rumoured to be the more intelligent. The other is that while Sherlock made the headlines it is said Mycroft merely worked for the government or at times “was the government”. Cameron has left the big ideas and the details to someone with a far weaker grasp of the public mood than himself. At his worst Osborne can appear a mixture of Patrick Bateman and a Greyfriars snitch, but he is too knitted in to Cameron’s project to replace so we are facing another three years of this, which is fine for the opposition but not so good for the unemployed, sick or needy.
Each new PR mistake exposes the vapidity of Osborne’s ideology and the government’s actions. It’s telling that the Conservatives somehow contrived to miss out on Olympic piggyback riding as their relationship to the Games began to look more and more like that of Cynthia Lennon’s to the Beatles train to Bangor in 1967.
During the Olympics the public made a connection between the joy and communion they experienced (or at least felt vicariously) and the values extolled throughout the Games on the ground, namely generosity of spirit, social co-operation and inclusiveness – and they instinctively knew that these have little to do with Osborne or his policies. Ironically the public came to associate these anti-Tory values with patriotism, the natural territory of his party. It’s as if the “spirit’ of the Games, however illusory, was felt to be the opposite of the spirit of the government.
The effect of this hugely significant public revelation is that Conservative attempts to claw back some initiative – such as linking the success of British athletes with Tory theories of competition – are doomed to failure. They are always out of synch.
The most instructive gaffe was to green-light the accusation by David Gauke MP – a treasury minister – that cash-in-hand payments were “morally wrong”. The idea that this cosmically hypocritical notion would play well in the context of the “out-of-touch posh boys” label is baffling (and shows how much the party misses Andy Coulson). But it all seems to be part of Osborne’s scheme for deflecting attention away from his responsibility for bad economic news. As well as attacking Labour, he has blamed the faltering finances on the weather, the Royal Wedding and plumbers. Somehow he thought it would be a good idea to alienate the self-employed – it’s not like they ever vote Tory is it?
When Osborne steps into the public arena directly the results can be disastrous, such as his self-generated and face-losing row with Ed Balls. The lip-curling (literally) resentment as he backed away from Balls’ counterpunch exposed a politician unable to hide his lack of control.
It is tough – and depressing – to decide which is more alienating: that the Chancellor of the Exchequer uses then re-uses a soundbite of innumerate nonsense or that he thinks some voters – any voters – are dumb enough to be inured to his failings through the use of a sporting cliché. Either way, it’s bad news for him, but even worse for the rest of us.