‘… an enthusiastic Tory backbencher like me can hardly wait to switch on the Today programme every morning in order to listen to all the bad news.’
– David Cameron (January 2002)
In January 2002 David Cameron was a naive backbencher hoping for a really big crisis to bring the government down. By now he should have learnt to be careful about what he wishes for, but the election strategy he’s drawn up with bezzy mate George Osborne remains dependent on Labour slipping up and losing, rather the Tories stepping up and winning.
At first sight it is perverse that as we brace ourselves for recession it’s shadow chancellor George Osborne who is facing calls to quit. Events seem so unfair to some Tories that they’re calling foul: ‘Labour want to destroy Osborne to cheer Gordon Brown,’ whinges PragueTory; ‘Brown is out to destroy us,’ complains Iain Dale. Let’s hope they’re both right.
Last week, in keeping with the Cameron/Osborne philosophy of making minimal policy commitments, Cameron (not Osborne) promised revenue neutral national insurance holidays to businesses taking on the long term unemployed. Small suggestions like this, which fail to recognise the complexities of getting the long term unemployed into work and ignore the immediate crisis, are unlikely to excite anyone.
Set against a backdrop of Gordon Brown returning from Washington heralding a route map to save the world, the Conservatives could not look more pathetic.
So with Alistair Darling set to unveil the pre-budget report next week, when David Cameron finally stepped up to the plate this morning it should have been to say something big. Instead, he made an announcement that will matter only to political anoraks and will hardly register with the voters he needs to win over: a Conservative government would not honour Labour’s spending plans, but would develop plans of its own. The Sunday Telegraph had this story at the weekend; Oliver Letwin has been appointed to develop the new policy as Osborne isn’t up to it.
Back in January 2002, had some soothsayer told David Cameron of the events that would greet Gordon Brown in the early days of his premiership, he may well have wet himself in excitement. Summer through to autumn 2007 saw the bombing of Glasgow Airport, floods and foot and mouth. Yet the prime minister performed so well, Telegraph opinion writers fretted that the Brown Bounce would deliver Labour a victory of 1997 proportions.
This period should have taught Cameron and Osborne that the ‘wait for Labour to fail’ strategy was high risk and too dependent on events outside their control.
Should we enter the New Year with Labour back ahead in the polls, election fever will be rife once again. And, hopefully, Gordon Brown will have learnt from his mishandling of the election speculation of autumn 2007. Instead of tedious leadership speculation and populist fag packet manifestos, May or June 2009 may well see a fourth Labour victory.