Michael Fallon’s attack on Ed Miliband yesterday has raised eyebrows – the Labour leader, we are told is too weak to keep Trident while also being a fiendish backstabber who betrayed his own brother.
It’s that latter accusation that has got the Defence Secretary in hot water, with some commentators suggesting it echoes the “stab in the back” myth that was popular in far-right circles in inter-war Germany. Various internal enemies – Communists, Jews, and the politicians of the Weimar Republic -were held to have secretly undermined the German war effort in the First World War to further their own ends.
But was it a deliberate slur? Frankly, as dog whistles go, it’s a little too subtle for the party that brought us the “Go Home” vans. Certainly there is a problem with the lazy evocation of North London in British politics, although that’s as much an attack on Emily Thornberry and Tony Blair as it is on Miliband. It seems unlikely that anyone in CCHQ is pinning their hopes on the small subset of the electorate that is a) anti-Semitic and b) historically well-informed.
What really lay behind the intervention was the attempt to pull together the two biggest alarm bells that voters raise in focus groups and on the doorstep about Miliband – that they don’t trust him in a room with Putin and that he ran against his brother for the leadership. But the problem for Fallon – and the overall Conservative campaign – is that, increasingly, it appears as if a message that polls well in its constituent parts doesn’t hang together very well. Like Nutella and smoked salmon, everyone likes them, but no-one wants to eat them together.
It comes back to the fear that some Conservatives are starting to raise about Lynton Crosby – namely, that his approach has only worked in national elections in Australia, where everyone has to vote, so candidates can focus on driving up their opponents’ negatives rather than coming up with a persuasive reason to get them to the polling station. One parliamentary candidate says of their patch: “If everyone I spoke to were marched to the polling station, I’d win. There is still a hatred of Miliband in the country at large. But what are we offering to get our vote out?”
It all feels uncomfortably like Better Together’s “Leave and we’ll kill you” approach to the Scottish referendum – but with the added worry for the Conservatives that people liked the Union to begin with. They have no such cushion.