The Tories are a lot better than Labour at the moment at “winning” news cycles. Their operation is slicker and they are master tacticians. They receive paeans of praise from the political press for doing so. These short term tactics are extremely attractive to us political writers who have to find something new to write about every week, and whose obsession with Westminster is at such a level that we follow it closely enough to think about these day to day tactics.
So as a class, journalists celebrate these short term wins and analyse the losses, but are less good at seeing the longer term, the bigger picture. Celebrating the Tories tactics has led to them becoming over reliant on them – over and above a sense of long term strategy.
Cameron shooting Ed Miliband’s fox on VAT during yesterday’s PMQs is a classic example of this. It was an odd venue to make such an announcement. It contradicted the line George Osborne had given Parliament just one day before. But it ensured a “win” for Cameron at the last PMQs of this Parliament – a short term boost that will be much celebrated by the Tory leadership even when it means little or nothing to the country as a whole.
Last night it emerged that the Tories last act of this Parliament will be to try and get rid of the Speaker John Bercow. As Angela Eagle has said, it’s a grubby plot. It’s not worthy of the democracy of the Commons – never mind the last act of a Government. But equally, once again it is tactically clever and strategically stupid. The Tories are trading short term advantage for long term damage to their brand.
They may hate Bercow. They may want rid of him (though to their credit not all Tories are behind the move) and they may believe that getting rid of him would make their lives easier.
But why do they think this? Because – as with Cameron’s weird admission about “only” wanting to serve two terms as Prime Minister – their Tory arrogance is showing through once again. They are assuming they are going to be in power. Never mind that not a vote has been cast. the Tories are preparing themselves a smoother ride in their belief that they will coast back in to government.
Anyone looking at the polls right now and convinced they know the outcome of the next election is probably the kind if megalomaniac either best avoided or given a newspaper (or LabourList!) column. The polls are incredibly tight. The lead is interchangeable and the margin of error make it all but a statistical tie. the election will be close fought and hard won. If it is “won” at all it will not be decisive. Tactics will matter on a day to day basis, and ours will need to be better honed. But ultimately strategy will matter more. The hard yards will need to be put in – should have been put in – over a long period of time to set the tone both of the debate but also of your coverage.
The one thing the Tories can’t allow themselves to be seen as is arrogant. Aloof. Separate. Not “on your side”. Yet time and time again, they act in ways that bring them short term advantage (the money raised at a lavish fundraising ball, the commandeering of the campaign to reinstate an (unfortunately) popular TV presenter but over the long term do nothing but tarnish their brand.
Cameron and Osborne have given up on Tory modernisation. They can offer us nothing but the same nasty old brand, wrapped up in a story of austerity for the many and success for the few – their few. Those of us who comment on the day to day and week to week movement and activities in Westminster, would do well to remember to question not just their short term motives but the longer term wisdom of their strategy. Winning a news cycle may feel good, but it will be for nothing if they lose the election. Their clever clever tactics may – just may – contribute to that in the end.