Two phrases leap from Matthew d’Ancona’s column in today’s Sunday Telegraph. The first is when he says “the Cameroons are more spooked by UKIP than they are worried about winning over centre-ground Labour voters”.
The word “spooked” is exactly right, suggesting as it does an exaggerated and irrational fear of a phenomenon which looks more threatening than it really is. One of the tasks of a leader is to avoid being startled by such apparations and to show, as Arthur Hugh Clough put it, that “fears may be liars”.
Fears are certainly bad councillors. The way to deal with UKIP is to stay calm and demonstrate that our nation is in safer hands with the Conservatives than it would be were a gifted and audacious provocateur such as Nigel Farage ever to manage to get his hands on the steering wheel. For although Mr Farage is brilliant at expressing the disgust which the spectacle of politics so often arouses in good-natured people, he has shown by the way he runs his own party that he has difficulty in getting on with anyone who declines to accept that he is always right. He is the Mr Toad of British politics: a man with amusing qualities, but not someone to be trusted on the open road.
The other phrase which to me at least stood out in d’Ancona’s column was his reference to “the homeless tribe of Mondeo man”. This may be because for a number of years, I drove a second-hand Mondeo which I had been able to acquire at an advantageous price, in part because it was painted an unfashionable shade of deep purple.
That was one of the joys of driving a Mondeo: one could be certain one was not being fashionable. Another pleasure was observing the consideration with which my fellow Mondeo drivers conducted themselves. No boy racer ever seemed to feel the urge to get behind the wheel of a Mondeo. It is not a car which appeals to the spirit of ostentation, or indeed the spirit of adventure. It suits a family who want to get from A to B at modest cost and without mishap.
In September 2007, a mishap befell the British economy. There was a run on a bank called Northern Rock: an event pressaging a far larger disaster. The public finances and the banks will take many years to recover from that smash.
At the next election, an essential part of the Conservative message will be: “Don’t give the keys back to the guys who crashed the car.” But for this statement to work, the Conservatives have to persuade people that they can themselves be trusted to drive the car.
This means they have to show the qualities of Mondeo man or woman: prudence and politeness, rather than aggression and recklessness. In a Mondeo, the passengers know they are not going to be scared out of their wits, and that screaming matches will not break out at every crossroads about whether to turn Left or Right, for the destination is reasonably clear and the map is being read with due regard to driving conditions.
Politics is not the same as Top Gear. To veer all over the place in an attempt to defeat one’s rivals would be ridiculous. Reassurance, not excitement, is required.
It follows that the Conservatives will not do themselves any good by picking fights with the Liberal Democrats, or crossing the road to kick Ed Miliband’s head in. They have to show they are the party of the national interest, prepared even to co-operate with Nick Clegg when that looks like the best way to proceed. This was the strategy on which David Cameron and his colleagues decided in 2010, and to tear it up now would be an act of self-indulgent madness.