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How Cameron Will Try To Fight The 1992 General Election In 2015

Last Updated: Friday, November 25th, 2011

Most elections pare down to two primal instincts – hope and fear.  The Opposition’s goal is to evoke hope: as Tony Blair put it in 1997, “Things can only get better”.  The Government’s aim is to stir fear: “Britain is booming.  Don’t let Labour ruin it”, as John Major countered.

And the classic aim of a government, Conservative or Labour, is to play the electoral cycle – to get the pain in early, and give the rewards out later.  If there must be tax rises and spending cuts, Ministers usually try to load these into the early years of a Parliamentary term.  If there can be tax cuts and big spending rises, these are withheld until later years when the poll approaches.

The gathering frenzy over next week’s autumn statement – for example, over to what degree the Coalition will resolve its differences over pruning back red tape or workers’ rights (depending on one’s point of view) – will be forgotten within a month.  It is likely that George Osborne’s growth package will be too, unless it is more startling than pre-briefing suggests.

But whether it is or it isn’t, the 2015 election will be no different from its predecessors – barring a catastrophic terror incident (such as the one that swung Spain’s election in 2004).  Indeed, David Cameron will have even less reason that most Prime Ministers to push “change, optimism and hope” – his early opposition slogan – to the front of the Tory shop window.

This is because a programme of big-scale spending tax rises and tax cuts to sweeten the electorate’s pre-poll tooth is increasingly unlikely..  Cameron and Osborne don’t enjoy Blair and Gordon Brown’s good fortune when it comes to the state of the world economy.  The Eurozone crisis in particular is putting pay to the recovery on which the Chancellor was relying until recently.

True, Osborne hasn’t frontloaded his spending reductions, and why he didn’t do so remains a mystery.  But until the economic skies blackened, his plan was to present himself in 2015 as the pilot that weathered the storm.  The structural deficit would be as good as eliminated.  The economy would be growing.  There would be room for modest spending increases and tax cuts.

And the Prime Minister would be able to sing to the electorate, to borrow a line from D.H.Lawrence, the song of the man who has come through.  But storm clouds now obscure this sunny option.  The Chancellor may be able to claim that he is on course clear the deficit within his five year framework.  However, he probably won’t have done so within this Parliament.

In short, Team Cameron will be in a hard place (and the Liberal Democrats, who will arguably be even more reliant on having voter benefits to trumpet, will be in an even harder one).  Eurozone turmoil is sinking growth.  It could also torpedo the flagship welfare reform programme – which is reliant on their being jobs for those unemployed people being made ready-for-work to take.

With few gains to demonstrate (the expansion of academies currently being powered by Michael Gove being the most prominent) the Prime Minister will have no option but to fall back on the familiar gambit – “Don’t let Labour ruin it”.  This restriction ought to depress his spirits.  I suspect that it may actually lift them – however surprising, even astonishing, that may sound.  

The reason can be found amidst electoral history that is now almost 20 years old.  In 1992, John Major, a Prime Minister who had not been endorsed by the voters, had no option but to fight an election during a recession.  There was no growth – no room for the convenient pre-election tax cuts and spending increases.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader, looked set to become Prime Minister.  All but one opinion poll immediately before Election Day showed the Tories losing their majority.  But Major confounded the critics who’d measured him up for a coffin – winning a majority by playing the fear card to stupendous effect.

At the core of the team that helped to craft it was a young Conservative Central Office staffer in his early 20s – David Cameron, then head of the political section of the party’s research department.  He worked hand-in-glove with another waxing CCO star, who had been seconded to the party’s advertising agency – Steve Hilton, later his Tory leadership campaign manager and now his close Downing Street adviser.

Cameron’s biographers, Francis Elliott and James Hanning, write that the partnership was cemented the previous summer: “Cameron and Hilton worked on the political message emanating from Smith Square and then communicated them to the Saatchi brothers and their lieutenants, carrying their resulting ideas back to Central Office.”

Another member of the same vintage was Ed Llewellyn, now the Downing Street Chief of Staff and then in charge of CCO’s Europe desk.  During the election, Llewellyn travelled with Major during the day, Cameron having briefed him earlier at 7.30 on the morning’s papers.  The press dubbed Cameron, Hilton, Llewellyn and their friends “the brat pack”.

The authors write that Cameron, who had worked on the embryonic “summer heat on Labour” campaign, “had also helped decide twelve months previously to make “trust” the key issue”.  The election saw this strategy encapsulated in one of the most successful campaigning posters in British political history.

“If there is one image that captures the essence of the 1992 election campaign,” write Elliott and Hanning, “it is the ‘Labour’s tax bombshell’ poster…Hilton’s team illustrated ‘Labour’s tax bombshell’ with the stark outline of a Second World War-era finned bomb an image that the advertising experts thought would be instantly recognisable.”

So it would not be surprising if the same man in much the same situation, 20 years on, faced it with a certain nostalgic gleam in his eye.  He will know, of course, that history never repeats itself – literally, at least.  And certainly not if Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, is still in place come the election.

For it was Balls who, absorbing the lessons of Labour’s 1992 defeat, resolved: never again.  Working as the right-hand man to Gordon Brown, who was of identical mind, the two ensured that there was no repetition of error on the latter’s watch as Shadow Chancellor.

I began this article by citing not the election of 1992 but that of 1997.  This appears in many ways to be a better model for that of 2015.  Brown and Balls ensured that there was no Labour “shadow budget” in 1997, as there had been in 1992 – the blundering exercise that allowed the brat pack to help deploy the “tax bomb” to such devastating effect.

They also committed Labour to stick to the Tories’ spending plans, thus defusing any Conservative attempt to re-heat their beloved bombshell ploy.  Balls thus looks to face a dilemma as 2015 approaches, which he will already be pondering and seeking to resolve.

This is because while his experience is pulling him one way (towards repeating Labour’s 1997 exercise on spending in 2015), his instincts will be pulling another (because the gloomier the prospects looks for growth as the election approaches, the more difficult it will be to resolve from his position that government should be spending more).

But whatever Labour’s decision is, Balls is certain, if in place, to present as narrow a target as possible to Cameron.  None the less, the Prime Minister is likely, as I said, to have a gleam in his eye – despite the very different political and cultural circumstances some 20 years on.

This is because of one parallel with 1992 which certainly endures.  In 1997, Labour was led by the most charismatic leader in its history – and one, furthermore, who had won voters’ trust.  In 1992, it was led by one who couldn’t quite make it over the trust threshold – Neil Kinnock.  It is now led by a man who so far hasn’t come close to approaching it.

Miliband’s best single opportunity to move voters is his annual conference speech.  But YouGov found in its wake this year that his ratings were “almost unchanged” – at minus 32.  A pre-conference ComRes poll given big coverage by the Independent reported that only “24 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that he is a credible Prime Minister.”

Come 2015 – if the Government is still in place – Cameron will therefore seek to put trust at the core of his campaign.  He will strive to do to Miliband what he helped, 20 years ago, to do to Kinnock: make him a walking emblem of distrust.  And Miliband’s ratings are far less robust than his predecessors.

The core of the brat pack are in place.  Their aim is to deliver for their leader what they helped give to Major – the electoral endorsement that has so far been denied, and the return of a Prime Minister with a solid blue majority at his back.  Which reminds me: in 1992, Liberal Democrat voters flocked to the Tories for fear of Labour.  Cameron won’t have forgotten that either.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

Dr Teck Khong: Independent assessment of sickness will stop claimants blackmailing GPs
“Correcting the whole deranged system of sickness and unemployment benefits require more than changes to the award mechanisms. We need to inculcate standards of behavior from the earliest age that nurture responsibility toward self and society. When we as a society are ready to respect each other, understand and uphold personal and collective responsibility, and encourage and applaud all those people who undertake decent work regardless of its perceived value to society, then only can we begin to achieve the economic benefits of a fair and well-rounded society.” Read more: http://is.gd/bk3ogT

Ruth Lea: Britain is in a depression and the Coalition’s green policies are making matters worse

“May I leave you with two other thoughts? The first is the sheer insignificance of the UK as a CO2 emitter. In 2009 Britain accounted for just 1.6% of global emissions. We are shrinking into irrelevance as a carbon-emitting nation. Even if Britain’s economy were to be completely decarbonised the saving in global emissions, other things being equal, would be less than 0.5bn metric tonnes. In 2009 China’s CO2 emissions increased by over 0.3bn metric tonnes to 6.8bn metric tonnes, over 23% of the global total. Between 2007 and 2009 the increase in China’s emissions was 0.8bn metric tonnes, over one and half times Britain’s total annual emissions. China’s emissions are 13-14 times the size of ours and rising fast.” Read More: http://is.gd/mgJc9y

Bruce Anderson: There is no alternative to legalisation of drugs and this is how it might work
“The illicit drugs market has created the world’s third-largest industry. The losing war against it is promoting crime, corruption and chaos. Indeed, the manifesto could have gone further, but for the need to avoid offending various politicians. Drug trafficking is wrecking countries: Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad. Colombia has also suffered severe problems. Above all, there are no signs of improvement. In the UK, a huge number of crimes are drug-related. Burglaries, muggings, car theft; much of the proceeds goes straight to the drug-dealers. This is one of the principal threats to our quality of life. As a young officer, David Ramsbotham would have been told that you should not reinforce failure. Yet Western governments have been doing precisely that for decades. It is time to stop.” Read More: http://is.gd/pvWsgi

Paul Goodman: What will J Alfred Prufrock MP make of Cameron’s new EU strategy?
“The prospect of wider-ranging renegotiation demands from Cameron – let alone anything resembling a push for the kind free trade arrangement enjoyed by Norway or Switzerland – seems to be almost non-existent.  Instead, there looks to be a package based on single market furtherance, a curtailed EU budget, the protection of the City from a Tobin tax, the regionalisation of fishing – and a power repatriation precedent over working time. This would enable Cameron to make the pitch sketched out at the beginning of his article in public, and to set out another more bluntly to wavering backbenchers in private.  Do you really want to destabilise the Government?” Read More: http://is.gd/k4mm7O

Stephen Hammond MP: A bonfire of the regulations

“The Government has a deregulation committee that overlooks and administers the “one in one out” rule which was introduced in Sept 2010. The purpose is to control the amount of new regulation and ensure any new regulation is offset by the abolition of current regulation. Can it be improved further still? Firstly there could be an assessment of total cost to industry. Under the one in one out approach the new costs could outweigh current costs. Secondly could there be more of a qualitative test? There is clearly a risk that swathes of costly new EU regulations could be introduced while obscure outdated and uncostly regulation is deleted. Finally rather than regulatory offset can we go further to more wholesale regulatory deletion?” Read More: http://is.gd/LeVe8U

Jill Kirby: The agencies handling confidential information are still failing to take privacy seriously

Some may consider it ironic that Big Brother Watch is able to produce its report by collecting data from councils under the Freedom of Information Act. Thus transparency is used as a tool to detect breaches of privacy. As the Coalition releases more public data online, in its bid to increase government accountability and improve choice for the users of public services, striking the right balance between transparency and privacy becomes more critical than ever. The security breaches exposed by Big Brother Watch suggest that local government has not yet got the balance right. I hope that central government departments, as they prepare to release anonymised pupil and patient records, will show a much more rigorous attitude to safeguarding our privacy. Read More: http://is.gd/Wh8kI9

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: A nuclear Iran would trigger nuclearisation of the entire Middle East and it must be prevented
“Why the concern? Unlike Israel’s development of nuclear weapons, Iran’s does threaten to unleash another wave of proliferation. Tehran’s crossing of the nuclear threshold would not be a limited event, but the trigger for nuclearisation of the entire Middle East. Saudi Arabia would be first, using its close ties to Pakistan to secure the technology and know-how needed to expedite the establishment of a nuclear counterbalance. Yet the Kingdom would be quickly followed by Turkey, perhaps Egypt, and one day some of the smaller Gulf States. It need not be stressed that an arms race of that kind, at the heart of the most volatile region in the world, would only create additional instability.” Read More: http://is.gd/dNagwN

Tim Montgomerie: Lib Dem insider tells Guardian that getting Tories to help jobless is “like getting a vegetarian to go and buy a kebab

“This briefing follows a week or two of intensive claims by the Liberal Democrats to have protected a 5.2% uprating of benefits. The briefing was largely given to the FT (the best place to find out what civil servants and the yellow half of government are thinking).

The one place which had been safe and secret space for the Coalition had been the Quad – where Cameron, Clegg, Osborne and Alexander meet to take the big strategic decisions. That, following recent leaks about the Autumn Statement, is no longer so watertight.

Fairly or unfairly Olly Grender is getting the blame for the general problem (I have no idea about the kebab quote). Olly is acting as Clegg’s chief briefer while Lena Pietsch is on maternity leave. Given that she’s only likely to be in the job for 12 months she doesn’t have the same incentives to build long-term relations and trust with Tories.” Read More: http://is.gd/fZgBLA

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