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Bruce Anderson

Bruce Anderson: This government is standing firm on its policies, but it must do better on the politics

Momentum is crucial in politics. You are either pressing forward or being pushed backwards. You are either defining the debate or your opponents will do so, at your expense. If you lose momentum, you lose authority. When that happens, the government is moribund. There is a common feature in all the changes of regime in Britain since 1951: in each case, the governments had virtually died in office, and the electorate was only ratifying what had already occurred.

The last seven and a half months have not been good for Mr Cameron and his Ministers. On the surface, there is little sign of momentum. There have been a succession of political misjudgments and unforced errors, all reinforced by bad luck. The result: according to the latest poll, Labour has a seven point lead. That is a swing of seven and a half percent since the last election. If Margaret Thatcher had been in a similar position in mid-Parliament, she would have been worried. Only seven percent behind: what am I doing wrong? For her, mid-terms meant sizeable borrowings from the bank of political capital, to finance unpopular radical measures that would subsequently pay dividends. For David Cameron, it means standing firm.

We can draw one conclusion from Mr Cameron's relative popularity: the voters are still listening to the government. There is a second, more tentative, interpretation: that the electorate is more thoughtful than much of the media. What the Chief Whip said to the policeman, what the Chancellor paid for his train ticket — what does any of that matter, when it comes to the economy? George Osborne and David Cameron have not flinched. They are the pilots who are determined to weather the storm. This may have won them a reluctant respect and protected the government's authority. All well and good, but there is still the need to renew momentum. Repetition is also important in politics, a lesson that the current lot have not fully understood. There is the old adage that you should say what you are going to do, say that you are doing it and say that you have done it. That is not enough. You have to repeat your message until you are sick of the sound of your own voice. Then, suddenly, the voters will say: “That's interesting? Why haven't you told us that before?” Your response: an inward wry smile, and more repetition.

The PM and his team were pleased with the way in which his Party Conference speech was received. So they should have been; it was an outstanding performance. But the electorate's favourable response owed more to David Cameron's confidence and body language than to a deep appreciation of his arguments. He needs to repeat himself. Every speech from the Prime Minister ought to be a special occasion. Without compromising that, Mr Cameron should find a way of taking the nation into his confidence at regular intervals.

The economy, Europe: that is the inescapable battleground, today's equivalent of the First Wold War trenches. That is where the battle must be fought, and won. Even so, there may be the possibility of another front, without a Dardanelles fiasco. Over the past few weeks, there has been a rapid rise in one politician's share price. It can only be a matter of days before someone tips him as a future Prime Minister. Chris Grayling, the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister, has settled in to his eminence and his mighty responsibilities as if they came naturally to him. Mr Grayling has an important advantage. He looks a bit like an old-fashioned policeman, from the days when coppers were proper people. On crime and criminals, Ken Clarke always seemed ill at ease, as if he did not want his Euro-fanatic friends to think that he was sucking up to the Daily Mail. Mr Grayling has no such inhibitions. On crime and criminals, his views are simple. He wants less of one and fewer of the other.

But this will not prevent him from considering rigorous alternatives to custodial punishment, with the stress on rigour. Our present system of penal justice is seriously defective. Often, imprisonment is merely an expensive way of making bad men worse: of imprisoning those who are inadequate, unemployable and socially dysfunctional, to release them more inadequate, even more unemployable and even more dysfunctional. An intellectual revolution is overdue. Mr Grayling is the man to initiate it. He has the right-wing credentials: he could be Nixon in China. This would be good government. It would also be good politics.

Good politics brings us to Ed Miliband. He is still one of the Tory Party's greatest assets. A supposed Milipede revival is like the convulsion of a semi-dissected frog stimulated by the electric current. Even so, he, and his party's policies, need probing and exposing. That is a task for Grant Shapps, the new Tory Chairman — but nothing too rough. Gentle, charitable mockery should prove more than sufficient.

In terms of politics, the Tories are better off than they deserve to be. In terms of policies and the national interest, we should be thankful for the electorate's mature judgment. But that is no reason for complacency. The politics have to improve.


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