Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Hollow Message?

"This is the way the world conference ends
Not with a bang but a whimper."
-T.S. Elliot, 1925

I'm not one to complain, and I'm not suggesting David Cameron or his team are "The Hollow Men", but...

I opened my ears to his curious end-of-conference speech in the car this afternoon (on my way to a two hour lecture on computational linguistics and discourse analysis - what fun), and found myself listening to what sounded like the threat of doomsday if we don't all vote Tory tomorrow. It was not his best. It was certainly not as good as his last one. Or the one before that.

Quite simply, if you are going to "tell it straight" as an Opposition party leader and prospective PM, then the usual approach is to hammer home the narrative of the government's massive failure everywhere and then accentuate your positive alternate reality relentlessly. Whoever wrote that speech for Cameron seemed to forget this simple equation. As soon as you start muddying the waters with a "we're all in this together" message, admirably JFK-ish though that might sound, you run the risk of people hearing "we all caused this together" - not something I'd recommend suggesting if you want those same people to vote for you. They should have remembered that Kennedy made his "ask not what your country can do for you..." inaugural epic after he'd been elected President, not before.

Cameron did well in his nuking of Brown and Labour's extraordinary failures and he was dead right when he said that the Tories had won the argument on the economy. That was convincing, so why go on about it? There's honest and straight and then there's downright masochistic. This speech ran the serious risk of running into the realms of the latter. It will take even a very average Grauniad hack very little time to make the connection between masochism and sadism. Pain is something you can talk about, even indulge in; it's also something you can inflict. The leftie hacks will be wrong, of course, and dishonest: Cameron's honesty is exactly what the country needs. But this is politics and people who only hear the second hand accounts of biased and/or shitstirring journalists in their rag of choice are going to hear that one word over and over again: Pain. They ain't gonna like it. Oops.

So, no, not for me the rhetoric of failure. Not for me the politics of gloom. Frankly, after that speech, I was left wondering what the hell this conference was all about. And I've reached a conclusion. It was about framing the debate, not starting it; setting the benchmarks, not the tone. At least I hope that's what it was all about, in which case it was pretty clever. Having hit rock bottom after 13 long years of Labour failure, from here on in with the Tories the only way is up! Yeah, baby.

I hope this is true because I'm not remotely convinced that people will stomach nine months of the "economy is destroyed and only the Tories can rebuild it, but there will be pain", even if it's true. The BBC might have been right for once: this would be a very risky strategy. Mind you, we can always rely on the regular Brown crises to distract everyone from the Conservatives' collective pessimism. Maybe that's what Cameron is banking on. I hope not.

So, just to recap. From now on, Dave: attack, attack, attack - but smile, smile, smile. It might not be very easy, but it works.

The frown doesn't suit you.

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