Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Manchester Rally Moment

Last week the Conservative party had their annual conference. It was, or seemed to be, a big success. There was much wittering about Labour and their uselessness, much talk about their colonising of the centre ground, indeed there was talk of them taking over the centre-left with policies about the Northern Powerhouse, their much vaunted 'national living wage' and their re-branding strategy as the 'worker's party'. Cameron, indeed, seemed to recover his big society and hug-a-hoodie mentality.

I'm not going to focus on any of that - others have already trawled over the policies and their merits and demerits. Instead I'm going to look at what this might mean for the future. Specifically whether this conference might, just might, have been a Sheffield Rally moment for the Conservatives. The Sheffield Rally, for those who don't know, was a moment when the Labour party, back in 1987, have a final rally prior to the general election. It was widely seen as triumphalist, as the members turned up in suits and cars that looked like ministerial vehicles. Labour went on to lose the election and, so legend would have it, they lost because of that rally - they looked too triumphalist and smug and the public responded negatively too it. In all likelihood it had no effect, maybe a few points here and there but certainly nothing to generate the big difference in the polling results (they lost by 8%).

Looking at it, though, I felt a similar air of triumphalism about the Conservative conference. Among their leadership, their members, their supporters (or as we call them 'the press'), and most of the Labour party there's a sense that the 2020 election is already dun and dusted. Corbyn can not win, because he is unelectable [1]. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. No one at this stage knows. But it is interesting to see how this is infecting parts of the conference. Because what was really interesting about the Conservative conference was the way in which the starting pistol for the leadership election has been fired.

Michael Gove, George Osborne, Theresa May, Boris Johnson; in their own ways each of them was making a pitch for the leadership (Gove, though he might just be pitching for supporter in chief, and May to the right of the party, Osborne to the 'centre' as the continuity candidate, and Johnson to the left). Because everyone knows Cameron is winning, and because they all know that 2020 is in the bag, none of them are willing to hang around. Because Labour are already beaten the idea of keeping unified to defeat Labour seems to be going out of the window - everyone wants that shot at the guaranteed position of being Prime Minister.

And this might cause problems. For one thing, this is probably going to get quite brutal before its over, with lots of competition among the candidates. It will, to some degree, split the party as no one is just going to allow Osborne to take the leadership. Labour, by contrast, have the virtue of getting their acrimonious infighting out of the way early. If, and it is a big if, the party can come to a compromise around Corbyn in two years or so, they'll be able to put forward a united platform as well as spin the line that 'see, we behaved like adults. We had our differences, we sorted them out in a mature fashion and these are the policies we've arrived at'. If the Conservatives descend into in-fighting that'll look like an attractive proposition and the party that was divided is now unified and the unified party is now divided. It could turn things around. And it all comes as a result of people thinking it's all done and dusted. Hence the Manchester Rally moment.

Another two things to say, that is often forgotten, is that the contest will not be between Cameron and Corbyn; it will, in all probability, be between Osborne and Corbyn. This changes things, as Osborne is not as well liked among the public as Cameron and he doesn't have the same quality as a public speaker or being able to connect with voters. That might hurt him. In addition, during the contest, he may be drawn right in order to secure his leadership, vacating the much vaunted 'centre' ground. And, after all, this will not be the first time that the person seen as little more than the skilled speaker with no real ideas, is replaced with the smart, intelligent, brains behind the whole operation and it proves to be a disaster [2].

The other thing is that, in reaching for the centre-left, Cameron, in his moment of triumph, may have reached too far. Because it is unlikely that he will achieve the vision he set out too (not least because on all the metrics he was pointing to, things have got worse under his first five years). This could well come back and bite him. In order to take a lot of terrain you need to have the forces and the strength to do it. And with a paper-thin majority and a leadership election on the way it does not appear as though the Conservatives do, and could therefore be prey to a concentrated assault in particular areas.

Too Long; Didn't Read Version

It's like the game Risk. You can never hold onto the Russia-Asia region; even though you get seven extra soldiers it's just too large and your forces are always stretched too thin. A successful attack on one area leads to the loss of the extra men at each turn and the subsequent collapse of the hold. A successful strategy, however, is taking the Australasia region and placing everyone on Papa New Guinea. Putting all your soldiers there, the only entry point, allows you to have a strong defensive wall, whilst you build up your troops behind it. If you can survive the early assaults, you can then break out and go a lightning attack through your opponents and smash-and-grab the victory.

That is to say, it's entirely possible that Cameron and the Conservatives have overreached themselves and that Corbyn and the Labour party can turtle their way to victory.

[1] It's worth noting that all the people who claim this tend to be the same people who claim that Liz Kendall would have swept to victory (and to a lesser extent those who backed Burnham and Cooper). Now this, for all any of us will know, might be true but it is somewhat staggering that people can, with a straight face, maintain that someone who couldn't triangulate a way to victory with their own party members would somehow, magically, be able to do it for the country as a whole. The fact that none of them have even paused to think about whether or not they might, just might, need to reassess things shines a disturbing light onto the mentality of the average Very Serious Person.

[2] Indeed the Blair-Brown and Cameron-Osborne relations and succession may well prove Marx's dictum that history happens twice: first as tragedy, then as farce.

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