Still 376 days, and counting - until the first Friday in May 2010, when David Cameron is likely to be invited to Buckingham Palace, where he will kiss hands and accept the Queen’s invitation to form a government. But when one talks in those terms to the Cameron inner circle, they react as if they were being invited to walk under a ladder on Friday 13th, kicking a black cat on the way. Their watchword is and will remain “no complacency”.
This is wise, for two reasons. First, Gordon Brown’s Downing Street will fight all the way to the finish. With the possible exception of Robert Walpole, some time ago, no prime minister has been more unscrupulous in the pursuit of power. Lying e-mails, a Budget stuffed with toxic forecasts and economically illiterate tax proposals: this is only the beginning. If they could by some miracle win, the Brownites would not mind how much damage they inflicted to the country’s well-being and to standards in public life. If they were to lose, they would not care about the scorched earth that they would leave behind them.
Which brings us to the second reason.
In rugger, there is a useful phrase: hospital pass (in American football, they call it the Hail Mary pass). Catch the ball, with the enemy forces bearing down on you, and you can only hope that the stretcherbearers will be quick. Given the economic inheritance, this could be the hospital-pass election. So the Tories will need every one of those 376 days to prepare their plans for government and to engage with public opinion.
On the latter point, the Cameroons ought to be more self-confident. Anxious and resentful, many voters are inclined to believe the worst of all politicians and to trust none of them.
Yet there is also an appetite for seriousness and a reluctant willingness to give a grudging hearing to a politician who does not insult the public’s intelligence with facile solutions; who talks straight, not down.
This could be Mr Cameron’s opportunity. He has persuaded a lot of voters that he is bright and likeable. Now is the time to convince them that he is strong and substantial. If he could build that reputation, it would help him to survive the rigours of the hard years ahead. He has to find a way of sounding sombre without inducing despair: of offering long-term hope, without sounding glib.
That said, seriousness can be a frustrating business. Politicians rarely feel that a thoughtful speech receives enough coverage to justify the effort of writing it. Many of them are inclined to believe that their time is better spent on photo-opportunities.
But this is not a moment to overindulge the camera. There is only one solution to the coverage problem: perseverance. Economics may never dominate the conversation in the Dog and Duck, but a lot of people would like to know how we got into this mess, what will get us out – and when.
Not that we should underestimate the Dog and Duck. There was a shrewd old Tory MP called John Stokes, who was never given enough credit for his wiseacre wisdom. In the 1980s, during one of Margaret Stormcrow Thatcher’s recurrent crises, he warned the Commons that things were bad; people were talking about politics in the pubs. Oh yes, he persevered above the incredulous laughter, it was never a good sign when pub talk became too political; always meant that there was something wrong with the country. It is happening again, and it still does.
Up until recently, when Mr Cameron did make a serious speech, it usually contained an apology or two for past Tory misdeeds. This would always irritate Tory supporters, who did not enjoy listening to their Leader apparently endorsing Blairite black propaganda. David Cameron was unmoved. He insisted on the need to decontaminate the brand, which could not be done by telling the electorate that it had voted the wrong way in 1997.
There is still scope for a limited apology: an acknowledgement that the Tories had not foreseen the extent of the banking crisis, although even this could be qualified, by pointing out that they had often warned Gordon Brown about over-spending and over-borrowing. In general, however, the time for apology is over.
It should not be replaced by excessive partisanship. There is a place for adversarial politics. When David Cameron took over, there was talk about a kinder, gentler Prime Minister’s questions. Ha, ha. That could never have worked. It would be like expecting the Jack Russell and the moggie to share a food bowl. Some aspects of the Commons’ proceedings will always be a Punch-and-Judy show for grown-ups (in the all-time anthology of cockpit politics, Mr Cameron’s post-Budget performance last Wednesday will rank very high).
But even if the Tory leader is good in the cockpit, he should lift his eyes to another, currently unoccupied, piece of real estate: the moral high ground.
He should insist that his government will control public expenditure while attaining desirable social objectives. This should not be an impossible task, for many voters already think that they live in a country where nothing works. When David Cameron complains of waste and mismanagement, Labour will accuse him of planning to slash vital budgets. The Tories should merely retort that yes, they are planning to slash – waste and mismanagement, and that the public deserves the good government for which it pays, and pays.
Apropos of that payment, there are arguments which have to be restated. It appears from one of last week’s opinion polls that 57 per cent of voters are in favour of the new higher tax rates. If so, 57 per cent of the voters are wrong. The evidence is overwhelming. High tax rates lead to loss of revenue. If you reduce the rate at which the better-off pay taxes, the yield increases. The economic successes of the Eighties and Nineties, which financed significant increases in public spending, would not have been possible without Thatcherite tax cuts.
If Mr Darling’s tax rises were implemented, we would have the highest upper rate in the G7. We are already in the worst mess of any G7 country. If Messrs Brown and Darling had their way, it would be worse still. When Alistair Darling predicted three and a half per cent growth in 2011, no one believed him. Under his tax rises, his forecasts would be even more incredible.
Although David Cameron was right to avoid the trap which Labour was setting, and to refuse to turn the next election into an argument about the new super-tax, he will have to refight some of the intellectual battles which Mrs Thatcher seemed to have won. He opposed 42-day detention, even though the polls indicated that it was popular. He should also defy the polls on the question of a low-tax economy. In these troubled times, a politician brave enough to tell the voters that their first instincts were wrong could earn their respect for displaying leadership.
That quality is now necessary, as rarely before in peacetime. Mr Cameron must spend the next year proving that he possesses it. It is not enough to win by default.