This Conservative election campaign is defined by its dividing line: competence v chaos. But this is only the clearest of a succession of similar lines that Team Cameron has drawn in the sand during the last five years (such as the benefits cap and the debt trap) in order to put Ed Miliband and Labour on the wrong side of them – a trick that George Osborne picked up in opposition from his opposite number in the Treasury brief, Gordon Brown.
“Today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today!” cried Boris Johnson yesterday evening at the Legatum Institute, as he launched its “Vision of Capitalism” series, which is being led by Tim Montgomerie.
Sure, the Mayor’s speech had its electioneering patter and some gentle knockabout – as he warned that Labour would take us back to the 1970s, UKIP to “an imaginary 1950s”, and the Greens to “the Bronze Age”. If I heard him rightly, he then muttered something about “Beaker People”.
But where the temperature of the Tory campaign is cool and clinical, that of Boris’s speech was warm and spongy. Those sharp dividing lines faded into a blur. London, he told his audience, is getting “fairer, more just, more happy and more equal” (my italics). Crime, transport, schools: everything is getting better in this best of all possible cities. As for air quality, that of central London is sometimes better than Norfolk. Children from that country county will make the trip to glorious Hyde Park simply to breathe in and out, in and out. Life expectancy is getting longer for everyone, giving older women 18 more precious months in which to pose for Women’s Institute calendars.
Like some hairy, lactating mammalian, Boris was seeking to hug his people in a thermal embrace, so that they can find comfort at his milky breasts. None the less, he was Bill, not Hillary, in his Clinton-ism – reaching to scoop up the crowd’s love and alchemise it into votes. Michael Gove, a spikier figure, was trying the same politics in a different way recently – again at Legatum – when he called for Conservatives to become “warriors for the dispossessed”. What do we want? French lesbian poems! When do we want them? Now!
Where the David Cameron/Osborne/Lynton Crosby troika has its collective eye on pushing the Tory vote up to 35 per cent and above in a few weeks, the Mayor and the Chief Whip have theirs on sending it soaring up, up and away well beyond 40 per cent. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses in northern cities, your women, your public sector workers, your gays, your ethnic minority voters…
All very well, I hear you say, but what does all this mellifluousness mean? Where’s the beef? What’s the policy?
I don’t know, but there are clues. A starting-point might be to compare the sum of the Gove/Boris speeches to the early modernising project of David Cameron itself.
- There is less greenery, no hoodies, and no big commitment to international aid – though the Chief Whip and Mayor are presumably pro the latter.
- There is a bigger stress on elite-busting equality: Gove was keen to present this as an assault on the unmerited privileges of the undeserving rich – fostering competition, welcoming challengers, incubating insurgents, as he put it. “Left to their own devices, capitalists seek out monopoly positions, form cartels and become rent-seekers. So we need Government to intervene.”
- There would be a drive for more housing. Boris is keen on the plan, reportedly favoured by Iain Duncan Smith, to sell off housing association property to tenants. He is proud of his house-building record, and wants to see more houses go up. We recommend the ConservativeHome Manifesto plan for Docklands-development type Garden Cities.
- It would be all deeper, harder and faster in the drive for City Mayors and more localism – again, a ConHome Manifesto theme.
Some of this is similar to the post-2005 modernisation and some of it is different. But there is one very striking divergence, at least in Boris’s case. There is no attack on the base – no suggestion that the Party would be better off without a big chunk of its Right. One can’t imagine the Mayor signing off the David Willetts grammar schools speech. He wants not so much a Big Tent as a Nationwide Marquee – crammed with Chuffnell Poges-dwelling UKIP sympathisers as well as Sin City-based urban liberals.
But the choice between cold conservatism and warm conservatism is not at heart a choice between people – Osborne or Boris, say. Rather, it is all bound up with the debate about the future direction of the Conservative Party that will kick off in only a few weeks’ time, whatever the result. After all, Cameron contains these multitudes within himself – consider the approaches that he began with in 2005 and has the one he has ended up with now. (Where is the Big Society?)
If he makes it back to Downing Street, he will have to make a choice himself. Is his aim to hold his right, consolidate his centre, and settle for that? Or are his ambitions less constrained? Does he see an electoral future of fixation on a few 40/40 seats, or gaze wider to new electoral pastures, too – those northern cities, those UKIP-leaning coastal towns, seats with big ethnic minorities that were once Tory but are so no longer – such as the two in Luton?
Whatever happens on May 7, we are only a few weeks from that debate kicking off in earnest.