Tim Hamer: When the government’s reputation becomes Britain’s reputation
Tim Hamer, a Conservative Party activist in Oxford, believes the danger for Labour is that their failures are starting to reflect badly on the nation not just themselves
Labour’s failures are starting to look like national failure. Any government can make mistakes. But once the chaos reaches a certain level, it’s the country that looks clapped out, disorganised and inefficient. That difference marks the boundary between unpopularity and contempt. Them and us: if it reflects badly on them, then, with time, they might sort it out. If it reflects badly on us, they need to be kicked out.
We learned this after Black Wednesday in 1992. What began with the exit from the ERM was swiftly followed by the botched closure of coal mines, then Mellor-gate, then back to basics, and then and then and then…
The reality was a hard-up post-recession government with a tiny minority and without a meaningful idea of what it wanted to do. The impression given was a hapless government of a country where we couldn’t even start the Grand National or qualify for the World Cup. Even the shiny new 186mph Eurostar trains had to take their place behind the creaking, delayed 8.23 from Tonbridge on the crawl through Kent. We were a nation that shoved our kids in front of video-nasties and didn’t care about the consequences. Nothing worked properly.
If there’s one refrain that sums up the Major years, it’s “the fightback starts here”. But there never was a fightback. Even as the economy began its steady upward trend, the party’s fortunes did not turn. In May 1997 the Conservatives learned that those hideous opinion poll numbers had actually been right for the last four and a half years.
That’s why Labour should be wary of graphs showing we will avoid recession in 2008 or that house prices will not collapse. We do not need to go back to the days of negative equity for the government’s credibility to evaporate. It can happen when a failure by them is seen as a failure by us.
It happens when the prime minister marches us up the general election hill, then marches us back down, only to deny ever leading us there. It happens when we fail to qualify for Euro 2008, when queues form outside banks, when we cannot count the number of people coming in or out through our ports and airports and when half the population’s bank details are thrown into a postal lucky-dip.
It is happening. Just see how the words of the opposition are starting to have bite. In 1993 John Smith lambasted a “devalued prime minister of a devalued government”, in 1995 Blair mocked that “I lead my party, he follows his”. In 2007 people see a shaky Brown at the despatch box; as they double check their banks statements they hear clearly George Osborne’s demand that Alistair Darling “just get a grip and deliver a basic level of competence”.
Some commentators have said the government has not just had its own ‘Black Wednesday’. Sure, people are not in negative equity and interest rates are not at 15%. But neither were they after September 1992 - the economy had troughed before September 1992. The Conservatives had even won the election the previous April. What happened on Black Wednesday was something much more damaging. Government failures reflected badly not just on the Conservative party, but on the nation itself. After September 1992, it was us, not them. People are starting getting that feeling again.