Last week, a glove-puppet turned into a grave-digger. For the past year, Alistair Darling had been Chancellor in name and salary only. Modern prime ministers also hold the title "First Lord of the Treasury". In Gordon Brown's case, it has not been a mere honorific. He has continued to run the Treasury as if he were still Chancellor.
In one respect, this has improved the quality of government. While he was at No. 11, Mr Brown was a constant source of disruption. He continually interfered with other departments, usually to block measures which had Tony Blair's support or to punish ministers who appeared to be in favour with the PM. Above all, Mr Brown would never tell Mr Blair what he was doing. For the past year, he had told Mr Darling what to do, so the civil servants no longer had to wonder who was in charge.
Now, suddenly, Mr Darling has found his own voice. He actually sounded authoritative. Admittedly, it was a depressing message. The Government's fiscal policy had collapsed. It had no more money. Neither had the taxpayer. Borrowing was out of control and Mr Brown's golden rule had gone the way of the rest of the gold reserves, which he sold at the bottom of the market. Things were bad, Mr Darling told us, and would get worse. He had no idea how much worse, or how long the trouble would last, and he had no idea what to do. At least no one could accuse him of spin.
It may be, of course, that Gordon Brown is doing another Macavity act. Whenever there was trouble in the Blair years, we always knew where Mr Brown would not be found: anywhere near the firing line. It is possible that Mr Darling was left to make the announcement because Gordon Brown could not bear to admit that 11 years of boasting about his economic prowess had ended in abject failure and that his credibility was falling even faster than the budget deficit was rising. Mr Darling cannot be accused of boastfulness. Gloom comes easily to him. This is just as well. He is going to need a lot of it between now and the election.
Mr Brown went abroad in the hope of looking prime ministerial. Instead, he looked as he usually does these days: irrelevant. As always, he had no luck. It was not his fault that his attempt at poll-boosting coincided with Mr Obama's. Barack O'Blair can still rely on the credulity of his audiences. With smiles, platitudes and flip-flops, he tells everyone what they want to hear. He invites them to imagine their ideal President and then assures them that they have found him.
It is not guaranteed that this will play hugely well back home. In much of the States, it does not help to be known as the candidate who just swept France. But we can be certain of one point. Mr Obama's trip will be more fruitful than Mr Brown's. Admittedly, Mr Brown too would find it easy to tell people what they want to hear. It would only take him two words: "I resign". But whatever he says, wherever he goes, the British voters have stopped listening.
Most leading Tories are now intellectually convinced that they will win the election. And who can blame them? Most front-line Labour people are of the same opinion. But the Tories' intellectual conclusions are far from suffusing their vitals. Eleven years in opposition is a thorough cure for facile optimism. The Cameroons are still asking themselves what can go wrong and how they can stop it.
Their opponents accuse them of lacking policies. That charge has no substance. In the course of last year, the party published well over 1,000 pages of policy documents. It was at least as extensive as the policy-making process during the late Seventies and infinitely more thorough than anything Labour attempted before 1997. Determined to learn from Tony Blair's mistakes, David Cameron is adamant that he and his ministers must be prepared for government. Well and good, but the Tories should also learn from Mr Blair's successes.
The Cameron team does not lack policies. It does lack succinct summaries. It lacks sound-bites. Could anyone describe the Tories' economic policy in six lines? Even if that sounds over-simplified, every candidate will be obliged to do it during his election campaign. In 1997, the Blairites could do their policy in three lines. There was a problem, in that those three lines exhausted the intellectual resources of the incoming government. But Mr Cameron will have enough of those resources when he arrives in No. 10. He needs the sound-bites to ensure his arrival.
He also needs to strengthen his connections with his core vote. On that, he has a difficulty which he cannot help. He and his close political associates visibly enjoy life, at a time when many Tory supporters are hurting. For his first two-and-a-half years, Mr Cameron had another problem. Convinced that his party must change, he led it away from the prejudices and verities of the Daily Mail into unfamiliar territory, forcing his followers to discover the pleasures of bunny-hugging rather than bunny-boiling.
However shocking all this sounded to Tory ears permanently attuned to a Thatcherite wavelength, it did not involve the renunciation of any realistic contemporary Tory principles. On the contrary: David Cameron served happily in Michael Howard's Home Office. He does not have a molecule of Euro-federalism in his political being. He believes in sound money and discipline in schools. He abhors the welfare-dependency culture.
On both welfare and parental choice in schools, Mr Cameron will be more Thatcherite than she was. On negligent black fathers, he has made points that ought to have been made years ago, but which no senior Tory dared to make. Mr Cameron was able to put this right because he has ensured that his party will receive credit for the social generosity that has always been integral to Toryism, but which has rarely won the Tories its due share of electoral credit.
That said, large swathes of the Tory lower-middle classes are not feeling socially generous right now. Angry, they expect their party to express their feelings. They warmed to Margaret Thatcher, because whatever her government did, they always felt that she was on their side. A lot of them are still not convinced about young Mr Cameron (if he could rectify that, a three-figure Tory majority would not be inconceivable).
Irrespective of psephology, the economy's problems will force the Tories into a rhetorical adjustment. This is grim, grey, storms, sou'westers and battened-down hatches political weather. The Tories now have to prove that they are serious men for serious times.
As that happens to be true, it should not be beyond them and it is an easier task than Mr Brown faces. Truth is Mr Cameron's ally, but even if Alistair Darling starts to tell the truth about the economy, it is too late for Gordon Brown. All he can do is throw lead balloons in the air, to come crashing down on his cranium, while his Chancellor tolls the knell of passing day.Reuse content