Steve Richards: Here's why the Tory lead is narrowing

Policies were not bomb-proofed, and now there are explosions
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The narrowing of the Conservatives' lead in the polls may or may not be a passing phase. The fact that it is happening at all is in some ways extraordinary.

For more than two years an army of Conservative and non-Conservative pundits has worked on the fashionable assumption that David Cameron was heading for a comfortable majority and Labour for annihilation. As part of the collective assumption various ministers and de-politicised Blairites have poured poison into the ears of political journalists about the behaviour of Brown, implying that voters should make a judgement about a leader on the basis of how he treats his poor downtrodden ministerial colleagues, those weak-kneed, half-formed politicians who have never had to take a big political decision in their lives.

The polls suggest that voters are at least tentatively challenging the parochial assumptions, prodding against the glass wall to discover a little more about what lies behind the vacuous clichés, "modernisation", "change" and "progressive".

The tentative nature of the prod should be stressed. I have spoken to several cabinet ministers since the weekend. None of them believe that the Tory lead has been reduced to two per cent, as a poll on Sunday suggested. Irrespective of these mood-changing surveys, a majority in England voted Conservative at the last election in 2005, a pertinent fact from the recent past amidst the speculation about the future. With the economy apparently booming, living standards rising, promises of higher public spending, and the Conservatives fighting an amateurish campaign with little media encouragement, more voters in England gave their backing to Michael Howard's party than to any other. It does not take very much for England to support the Conservatives.

Evidently it takes more than is being offered by the Conservatives at this point in the pre-election drama. What was the Conservative leadership up to last summer, most specifically during the period between the European elections and their party conference? During those months, and indeed for a long time before then, Labour was on the verge of collapse. The half-formed politicians attempted their coups. Blairites and disillusioned Brownites were briefing anyone willing to listen that Brown was useless and deranged. Voters were deserting Labour en masse. The Conservatives had a rare luxury in British politics. They had space to make sure that when the focus turned to their policies they were what one cabinet minister described to me as "bomb-proof". The minister recalls Blair/Brown carrying out the daunting but unavoidable task in the mid-1990s. There was no need last summer for any of the Conservatives' few key players to be performing much in public. Away from it all Cameron and co should have been asking: What is our message? Are there any policies that contradict the message? Have we worked out precisely how we are going to implement our "tax and spend" policies?

I see no evidence of such bomb-proofing. Instead there are surprise explosions. If they had decided last summer that their overall message was about the appalling state of the economy they should have ruthlessly dropped the proposed tax giveaways. Having decided to stick with the tax cuts they should have moved on to discuss intensively how to present the contradictory messages and spent many long, arduous hours on the detail of implementation. In the mid-1990s Brown's team spent endless time working out precisely how to implement the windfall tax on the privatised utilities. The media projection of New Labour would have fallen apart if it had not been backed up by such tedious work on policy, including the leadership's willingness to disappoint activists by shaping every policy to the wider theme of incremental reassurance.

Why did Cameron and George Osborne not carry out this act of bomb-proofing last summer, or at any point? Perhaps they assumed they did not have to do so. Maybe the omission was an act of calculation based on the assumption that they could be tonally "progressive" one week (vague support for co-operatives), reactionary the next week (build more prisons, tough on immigration), and the anti-Brown factor would propel them into power. Possibly there are internal divisions at the top that make such resolution impossible, although I find this hard to believe. On the whole I have never observed such relatively harmonious teamwork at the very top, even if those on the outside fume. There are mild internal differences, but that is because they were not all ironed out and addressed earlier, before the political temperature rose.

I suspect the most likely explanation is that bomb-proofing policy would have disappointed activists and perhaps themselves. Much of the media had accepted the party had "changed" and that Cameron was a "moderniser". Why disturb the glowing polls of last summer and autumn by announcing real changes in policy that might have ignited internal revolts?

Whatever the reasons behind the evasion, the end result is that voters are finally coming around to take a closer look at the alternative government and are not entirely sure what they see. That is because the Conservative leadership is not entirely sure what it is seeking to project.

As a result there is a surprising amount of speculation that Brown will call an early election. The speculation is surprising partly because it extends to senior Labour MPs who now wonder about the benefits of a campaign beginning almost instantly.

Such talk is also surprising because it is wrong. There is one reason above all others why Brown will wait until 6 May and it relates to the televised debates, the wild card of the election. Brown knows that Cameron and Nick Clegg are already carving out time to prepare for these potential game-changers. He is worried that with all the other prime ministerial distractions he would be less ready if the campaign began almost immediately. As someone who prepares too obsessively for much smaller media events, Brown has decided he needs all the time he can get to focus on these potentially pivotal events.

Besides, the Government has got its own internal differences to resolve in relation to an economic message, and remember England voted Conservative in 2005 when the polls were much more glowing for Labour than they are now.