Political climate change

America has been abuzz with talk of tea-party moments this week. Obama’s gloss has dulled and his party took a pasting on home turf. In England, maybe because we can’t stand to think of all that wasted tea, there are slower changes underway.  

In the last few years I can think of just one tea-party moment; one moment at which politics changed instantly. That moment was the cancelled election. Brown was popular and about to consolidate power with a snap election in which a divided opposition had little hope of success. Then he was weak and feeble and clinging to power until the newly united Tory party inevitably swept to power.

That has been the established climate for a couple of years now. The weather changes from day to day, but the backdrop has stayed constant.

Until recently.

Gordon Brown has been “winning” Prime Minister’s question time for a few months now. He has been more confident in public appearances. Highlighting how in touch the Tories aren’t has also helped a little. But all of that is superficial.

What has really changed is an atmosphere. Labour have changed, subtly and without announcement, from no-hopers to underdogs over the course of a few months.  

Part of that change is inevitable election upswing.  

Firstly pundits get nervous. Most political hacks can be summed up thus. They are politicians who lack the courage to face the scrutiny of a ballot box. Two years before an election they can declare the result with a certainty and pretend to be experts. No one will call them to task if they are wrong years later. With an election looming they get nervous. They edge their bets and muddy the waters so they sound expert but can’t be out and out wrong. So Labour are no longer dead in the water. Instead nothing is certain and “elections are unpredictable.”   

Secondly, the public start to care. People generally drift along with an all-knowing air of negativity. Those who argue that, for example, NHS waiting times have come down, sound endearingly naïve or awfully corrupt. But with an election coming the default setting shuts off. That waiting times have fallen becomes important. People weigh the good against the bad instead of just weighing the bad and ignoring the good. So inevitably that benefits the government.

This seasonal upturn for the Government would mean little normally. But Labour are capitalising. 

The attempted coup a couple of weeks ago fell about as flat as a coup could. It was led by two transparently bitter former ministers. It was backed by the usual gaggle of marginal misfits. Ministers who might be future leaders all backed Brown. Even those of us who love insider intrigue couldn’t sound convincing as we said this weakened the Prime Minister.

Likewise, pick up a paper and you’ll find talk of energy, Iraq and economic upturn. What you’ll see little of, surprisingly, is David Cameron’s latest policy announcement.

Campbell had a simple doctrine at the height of his powers. Stay in the news. Whether it was a new initiative, a response to some disaster, or being confronted by an angry voter at a hospital, he wanted the press to always look Labour’s way. 

That was a good strategy. It took the old adage that you don’t talk about your opponents – and extended it. It is no accident that since he re-entered the fray for Brown, Cameron has been relegated in column inch terms. Politics at the moment is focused on Iraq, energy, and the economy. And Labour are happy to keep things that way. The economy seems set for recovery, all be it a slow one. Iraq is long in the past and electorally of little importance. And energy is an area that Government can act on while the Tories are split about climate change. 

In short, Labour are the main story again. Campbell is clearly back in charge. 

And it is working. Snipes at the Tories are sticking, especially about their social status. That they are all rich and mostly born to money is now an accepted fact even if it isn’t quite true. That would mean little if their tax plans weren’t a list of hand outs to the super-rich. But they are.   

Likewise the Lib Dems are being used well. It is not uncommon now to see newspapers carry a Nick Clegg and a Labour story on the same double page spread with no mention of Cameron. Not so long ago Clegg was a story alongside Cameron while the Government was reported elsewhere. 

The change was signalled somewhat when Brown stated, with no mincing of words last weekend, that he wants a referendum on electoral reform. 

That is music to Lib Dem ears. And it is something the Tories could never offer them. In short, a hung Parliament would now almost certainly involve a Lib Dem and Labour pact, if only a short one to push a referendum. 

And that talk of hung parliaments is good for the underdog. It plays down expectations while playing up hope that no monumental defeat is coming. That is an improvement on six months ago. And it runs well alongside the edging of bets by newly cautious pundits. It raises spirits among Labour supporters. And it ensures wavering Lib Dems have a reason to vote against, not for the Tories. 

None of this will win Labour the next election . For what it’s worth, I still expect Cameron to enter number 10 in May. (no muddying of waters here). But it is good to see a fight being made of it. Labour led for years without opposition, and that can make for poor scrutiny. The Tories should not be so free for their five years in charge now.

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