Ever since the non-election of the early autumn, politics has felt bizarrely and suddenly different, the equivalent of visiting a different country without travelling to get there. Labour is down, with some ministers wondering whether there will be a bright sunny dawn again. The Conservatives are up, once more rediscovering the complacent cockiness that infected their calculations in the final months of Tony Blair's leadership.
Yet politics does not move as fast as it seems. The breathless round-the-clock coverage suggests that virtually every second of the day there is a crisis, a u-turn, a betrayal and a fatally transformed fortune. It is not like that. Brown was not as all-conquering as some suggested in the summer. Cameron was not as weak then, but nor is he in an especially strong position now. As the exchanges in yesterday's Queen's Speech demonstrated, Brown has not metamorphosed from an astute strategist to a bungling one. Instead, amidst the gloom, he has spent the last few weeks marking out fruitful new dividing lines with the Conservatives. Amidst their euphoria, Cameron and his allies have helped him in his task.
Queen's Speeches are never epoch-making moments. They are only one part of the political picture, which is fully fleshed out by budgets, spending reviews and foreign affairs.
Brown is partly to blame for the high expectations that preceded yesterday's address after he declared he wanted more time to outline his "vision" when he decided against an early election. The term "vision" has replaced "trust" as the most ubiquitous word in British politics. Both terms are treacherous. Politics is a noble vocation, but public candour is not always possible, which is why "trust" is a malevolent prism through which to view political activity.
Similarly, nearly all of us have a "vision". If we articulated it,we would get the passionate support of a few. Political leaders need a wider coalition of support so they are more circumspect about their political purpose. Tony Blair's genius was to make speeches that contained incremental proposals while giving the impression he was a crusading revolutionary. David Cameron has a stunning ability to make speeches that attract the approval of some progressives even as he moves rightwards. His vision becomes obtuse as he seeks to build the broad coalition he needs to win.
What of Brown's vision in the context of yesterday's speech? Some of the measures are genuinely radical. The plans to raise the education leaving age to 18 are as important as the proposals to introduce diplomas, a revolution in education that brings England closer to equivalent countries in its focus on training and skills. The house-building programme is much needed, the minimum required, but still ambitious.
Britain used to build affordable homes. In the 1980s it stopped doing so as council homes were being sold off, a combined act of reckless irresponsibility. Probably voters will notice most the improvements in bus services that will follow the end of the deregulated system that allowed private companies to make big profits while providing a lousy service. Ask MPs what constituents moan about most and the hopeless bus provision is high on the list.
There was more meat in this Queen's Speech than in most and quite a lot of it nods in a progressive direction. But we have known about most of the contents for several months. What mattered yesterday were the exchanges between Brown and Cameron, defining much more clearly than before the nature and tone of the debate in the run-up to the election.
Since Cameron's brilliant week at the Conservative conference in Blackpool, where he displayed extraordinary political calm and flair, he has made a series of significant and so far underestimated mistakes. His success during the conference season gave him unexpected political space. He has made use of it by highlighting immigration, the need for only English MPs to vote on English laws and his support for a referendum on the EU Treaty.
If Cameron was serious about modernising his party, he would have used his new authority to challenge more of its vote-losing orthodoxy. Instead, in a position of strength he has pressed populist buttons. A leader shows his true personality when he commands the stage and has the chance to move any way he wishes. At such a moment, Cameron has acted superficially at best. As a result, his party senses it has the chance once more to show what it is really like – hence the recent statement from a candidate in a marginal seat praising Enoch Powell's appalling speech on immigrants.
Cameron should have made use of his new authority to develop policies in ways that would have challenged Brown more coherently. The collapse in ministerial confidence was both sudden and deep. His failure to do so has given Brown an opening.
Brown's new dividing lines, as outlined yesterday, place the Tories against the building of new homes, diplomas that are supported by the CBI and extended training for those aged 16 to 18 . Brown also referred to the wish by some Conservative MPs to pursue a referendum on the EU treaty even after it has been ratified, a disastrous contortion for the party, as Cameron probably knows. No doubt the lines are more blurred than Brown's highly partisan interpretation, but there are elements of truth in all of them.
Brown even dared to erect a divide over inheritance tax, pointing out that the Conservatives' proposal extended to the 3,000 richest estates in the land at a cost of £1bn. Having followed weakly the Cameron/Osborne policy, he seeks to turn it to his advantage and I would not write him off from doing so. The slogan "A billion pounds on schools or millionaires?" invites only one answer. Cameron has had some effective soundbites in recent weeks, most particularly the one in which he accuses Brown of treating the voters like fools. But Brown retorted yesterday by repeating three times that Cameron's polices were "confused, contradictory, and not thought through".
Until now, Brown had virtually ignored Cameron as an opponent, not even mentioning him in his conference speech. Finally, he has hit upon the weakness in Cameron's leadership, which relates to the challenging task of linking values and soundbites to credible policy development.
In doing so, Brown begins to find a more authentic Prime Ministerial voice after the unconvincing consensual sounds of the summer, when he sought to be the father of the nation as he contemplated an election to wipe out his main opponents. Those misjudged manoeuvres have lost him the benefit of the voters' doubt, a loss that might still prove fatal. But look where the parties are placed in relation to the key policy areas and Brown and his suddenly demoralised troops have much more cause for optimism than they probably realise.Reuse content