In the recent film Fair Game, there is an excruciating dinner-party scene in which earnest young scions of the Washington political establishment discuss the nuclear threat supposedly presented by Saddam Hussein. Over the French cheese and claret, they vie with each other to show off their knowledge of pipe gauges and diameters, missile capabilities and the finer points of uranium enrichment. The hostess knows they are all quite wrong, but cannot contradict them without revealing her work as a top-secret Iraq specialist at the CIA.
At the hairdresser's last week, I featured in a rather more modest, but not dissimilar, piece of theatre. Within the sound of Big Ben, heated conversations were going on between stylists and clients about how the Government was intent on privatising the NHS, how disabled people were going to have to choose between enforced work and penury, and how cuts in benefits were going to drive "the likes of us" out of London.
I happen to disagree. This is not how I read government plans at all, and I have access to the statements and other primary sources to support my quite different and more benign interpretation. But you don't start challenging the consensus in the hairdresser's. You don't start arguing with your taxi-driver either, at least if you want to get where you are going – even if you are keen to listen to the news and he has just switched it off with a hiss of disgust, saying: "Just what this country doesn't need – another war." It's just safer to talk about the traffic.
All right, so a couple of anecdotes taken from a single day hardly warrant elevation to the status of a MORI poll as evidence for the state of the nation. But there are times when a sixth sense tells you that the weather is about to change. And mine tells me that, after a relatively quiescent nine months, give or take the odd student demonstration, the Coalition has started to lose its battle for voters' hearts and minds.
Tomorrow's day of protest, with the TUC-organised March for the Alternative through central London, will be one test. No one is forecasting anything like the million or so who marched against the Iraq war on that epic February day in 2003, but a throng of significantly more than 100,000, which drew from a wider constituency than the politicised lower echelons of the public sector, would be a harbinger of political trouble – trouble the Government would be well advised not to ignore.
It might be objected that there was never a time when the Coalition really had the public on its side; that its Conservative-Liberal Democrat make-up was always a minority taste, well before it embarked on any policies. Anyone who believes that, though, must explain why autumn and winter have both passed so peacefully, despite a host of threats from a wide variety of vested interests, and why, through all these months, Labour was unable to harness so many malcontents to its cause.
Certainly, the Coalition enjoyed a conspicuously easy ride until recently. But it would be wrong to explain that away as chance. First, there was the novelty of having a coalition government at all. Then, as summer turned to autumn, surprise turned into a generally approving, if passive, acceptance. MPs visiting their constituencies through these early weeks spoke, with some astonishment, of the "calm on the doorstep". The Coalition seemed to have tapped into that ever-elusive silent majority, touting changes that an unusually large number of people quietly agreed on.
These included promises to rein in the big bonuses paid to bankers and others. They included Iain Duncan Smith's proposals for a wholesale reform of the benefits system. They included a return to plain English in official pronouncements and traditional standards in schools. They included culls of quangos, back-offices and middle-managers, as well as a reassertion of civil liberties, including the ditching of what was seen as that very un-British project to introduce ID cards.
All this went with the grain of British society; it hardly needed to be "sold". But when it was, it was sold in terms calculated to appeal to a broad majority that had felt stigmatised for years as an archaic minority.
This applied especially to the proposed benefits reforms. While narrow lobby groups made hay with the legions of children who would, they claimed, be plunged into Dickensian poverty, the single parents who would be forced out to work or the large families who would face eviction from houses their benefits would no longer afford, they came up against a broad consensus that work should be made to pay and that no household should be able to rack up in total benefits significantly more than a working family would earn on the average wage.
Efforts to drum up indignation on behalf of those who really will lose from next month – parents on higher-rate tax who will forfeit child benefit, households with double the average income who will no longer qualify for tax credits, those whose pay falls within the new threshold for higher rate tax – generally failed dismally. The higher personal tax allowances produce far, far more winners – which is why George Osborne in his Budget on Wednesday repeated the trick for the next financial year.
So why, if the consensus for benefits reform, in particular, was demonstrably there, and ministers generally did a good job of highlighting the ample opportunities to reduce waste in the public sector, has the public mood changed?
Here are three possible reasons. The first is the imminent rise in university tuition fees. There may have been no choice, and the fact that nothing need be repaid until the graduate earns a decent salary may indeed make higher education a more realistic proposition for students from poorer families than it is at present. But £27,000 (three years at the new maximum fee level) is still regarded as a lot of money not only by students, but – which may be politically more damaging – by their highly articulate parents.
The second is that, whether through complacency or fatigue, the Government simply stopped talking about benefits reform. Still more dangerously, it has never presented any readily comprehensible defence of what it plans for the NHS. The effect was to leave the field not just to single-interest lobby groups, but to professional groups, the trade unions and local councils, all of whom screamed "government cuts" at every opportunity. Ministers needed not only to get their message out, but to rebut the multitude of misleading accusations and special pleading. This was a mistake they are likely to regret.
And the third reason, since the start of the year, has been the press of epic international developments – in North Africa and Japan – that have significance not just for these countries, but for us. Of course, any responsible government has to respond, and do its utmost to influence the external situation in its favour. But must it do so to the exclusion of its domestic agenda, especially when that agenda is still at such an embryonic stage? My hairdresser and taxi-driver may be wrong, but their wrongness is proof that the Government is not getting its message across. And if indeed it is losing people who belong to its key constituency of small business, it is going to find it exceptionally hard to win them back.
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