And so it begins. Labour’s conference opens today; the Conservatives’ today week. Unless the headlines from Brighton read “Corbyn ousted as Labour returns to sanity”, only two other versions can emerge: “Labour lurches left” and “Labour in chaos”. We will doubtless see both.
Of the two, David Cameron and George Osborne will prefer the latter (after all, it is easier to dismiss your opponent as incompetent than to have to hammer out why he is wrong). But both lines of argument converge in a single word: risk. In Manchester, Corbyn will be presented as a risk to the country, your neighbourhood, your family – and your wallet.
Security v Risk: have no doubt about it, that will be the Chancellor and the Prime Minister’s theme, as the former prepares to hand over to the latter. (The fuss and flummery that will envelop Osborne’s speech this year will match that which usually comes with Cameron’s – a sign of the planned transfer of power…if that awkward EU referendum can be negotiated successfully.)
Security is the Lynton Crosby watchword around which the recent election campaign was crafted. It sets up the Prime Minister as a latter-day Stanley Baldwin, who stands for “Safety First” – a role that fits this traditional, centre-leaning, establishment One Nation Tory more comfortably than that of the radical, Steve Hilton-like outsider.
There are strengths in being the party of the massed moderate middle, which is the way a vast swathe of the voting public likes to think of itself. It is ground on which the Conservatives have fought, and mostly won, elections from the age of Baldwin himself through to that of Macmillan, whose photograph adorned Cameron’s office in opposition.
Stability, security, and no risks with Corbyn (or, for that matter, Boris). At first glance, this appeal will sit awkwardly with Osborne – should he succeed his old friend and colleague – who, as his visit last week to China reminds us, isn’t averse to throwing the dice now and again. But by 2020, the Chancellor will have been in place at the top of British politics for 15 years or so. He will be a well-known quantity.
None the less, there is a danger in all this for Osborne and Cameron. Just as the weaknesses of the old One Nation appeal were found out during the 1970s, so the flaws in simply being an Establishment Party could catch up with the Conservatives in the future. As this site has argued from the tenure of Tim Montgomerie to the present day, our biggest weakness is being seen as “the party of the rich”.
Whether the matter at hand is parents struggling to find good schools for their children, disabled people who want to work but can’t, older people who can find no means of saving or young people who can’t afford to buy a home, the status quo simply isn’t good enough.
Like Marine Le Pen, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Corbyn is a sign of the anti-establishment zeitgeist that has the capacity to lay governments and parties low. Corbyn’s Labour is the prisoner of some of the worst of it. The Conservative test in Manchester will be to capture the best.