What the British people want at the election, it would seem, is David Cameron as prime minister in a Labour government. A ComRes opinion poll for ITV News last week found that, forced to choose between Cameron and Ed Miliband as prime minister, people split 55 per cent to 45 per cent in favour of the incumbent.
Offered a choice between “the Conservatives winning a majority of MPs” and Labour doing so, however, the voters preferred Labour, by the narrower margin of 51 per cent to 49 per cent.
Funnily enough, that is roughly how I feel. I thought Cameron was a better choice than Gordon Brown as prime minister at the last election, and I think he would be better than Ed Miliband for the next few years. Not even Tim Bale’s forthcoming account of Miliband’s leadership, Five Year Mission, can persuade me that he has the qualities to be a good prime minister. The book is sympathetic to the Labour leader, and allows us to see that he has, more skilfully than I realised, shifted from his sincere naive-leftism, which he exploited to win the leadership, to a more ambiguous pragmatism, in which he does not believe but thinks is needed for the general election.
However, as my conviction grows that Cameron’s party will win the most seats in May, maybe even a majority, I become less sure that it deserves to.
Fundamentally, this is about the economy. George Osborne made a fool of himself by sounding so hawkish about the deficit. He succeeded in frightening consumers and business leaders with his talk of austerity, thus stalling the recovery that was under way in 2010. Yet, for all that pain, he has managed to cut the deficit by less than Alistair Darling planned to do.
Last week, William Keegan, doyen of economic journalists, published Mr Osborne’s Economic Experiment, in which he blames the Chancellor for having suppressed the country’s “animal spirits”, discouraging people from taking the risks needed to keep the economy going. The book is a powerful statement of the Keynesian case for not worrying too much about government borrowing when interest rates are near zero.
It was interesting that Ed Balls, the shadow Chancellor, attended the book’s launch, at the Strand Group at King’s College, London, and even asked a question. He noted that the Chancellor had given up on deficit reduction in 2012 and asked Keegan if he thought that Osborne had been secretly reading his columns.
This is not the Labour Party’s usual criticism of the Chancellor. Its election campaign is built around the proposition that axe-man George is planning to cut public spending too deeply. Balls’s question implied that Labour ought to run posters of Osborne as a big soft fluff ball with the slogan: “He can’t cut for toffee – he’s left the job half done.”
You can see why Labour won’t do that. But Balls is in my estimation the most impressive politician on either front bench, with the exception of Cameron. He is a better economist than Osborne, and would be a better chancellor. Apart from his career-long error in supposing that Gordon Brown would be a better prime minister than Tony Blair, his judgement is good. He is a poor performer in the Commons, and comes across badly on TV: but those are skills needed as prime minister, not at the Treasury.
Thus we have the beginnings of our fantasy Cabinet: Cameron prime minister, Balls chancellor – to the horror of both of them, no doubt. Not that I am really compiling a Goat, a Government of All the Talents. This is more an exercise in comparing the teams, person by person, the better to make a judgement about which of them deserves the chance to govern for the next five years. (I pause here to register again my opposition to the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, and my view that if we keep it the term should be four years, not five.)
At the Home Office Theresa May and Yvette Cooper are evenly matched. At Education, the Tory advantage was lost when Michael Gove was moved. Nicky Morgan has been a colourless replacement, although she may try to recover some ground on Andrew Marr’s sofa today. Her opposite number, Tristram Hunt, has also failed to cut through. Another draw.
Quite unexpectedly, Jeremy Hunt has the edge over Andy Burnham at Health. After the Great Unforced Error of this parliament, Andrew Lansley’s top-down disorganisation of the NHS, Hunt has been remarkably effective in restoring the service to an even keel. Burnham, on the other hand, has pursued a scare-mongering campaign of such cynicism that it inspires little confidence in his ability to manage Europe’s largest employer.
What the country really needs, then, is a Labour government, with Cameron as prime minister and Hunt as health secretary. But that is not what we are going to get.