Although these things are somewhat subjective, yesterday’s budget could probably be considered a hit in pure political terms. Yes, some pundits, particularly on the left, have critiqued elements of it, such as the tax giveaways to the middle-classes. Yet there is no sense of danger here, of something on the level of the 2012 “omnishambles” moment – and given the state of the government, that’s no mean feat.
Most of this can be laid at the feet of Philip Hammond. His delivery yesterday was a throwback in many ways; back to a time when front line politicians weren’t terrible at politics, for a start. Some will make fun of the jokes told from the government despatch box yesterday afternoon, in particular the sequence of several bathroom quips. But it worked because Hammond delivered everything, bog gags and all, with solid, unflappable confidence. Further, yesterday’s budget speech from Hammond had a narrative attached to it that made sense. The last time Labour was in government, there was a recession; the Tories have presided over eight years of stability and growth; having rescued the economy, we are now in a position to offer something back to the electorate. Now, you can quibble with the validity of any part of that narrative (and impending Brexit cliff edges make parts of hard to swallow) – that’s not the point. Hammond presented a narrative that explained who the Tories were, what they had done and where they were going that was fathomable and even a little compelling to the objective viewer.
This may sound like no big shakes. Yet think about it for a second: you never, ever get this with a May speech. Ever. Her Tory conference speech just gone, lauded because neither her nor the set behind her physically broke down during the reading of it, was essentially narrative free. I got no sense of what the Conservative party is supposed to be, what it has done or in particular where it is going from May’s speech. When she said “Austerity is over”, it just sounded like another empty soundbite, unconnected to anything else she had to say.
And you don’t really get a solid narrative from Corbyn either. The problem that holds both May and Corbyn back is their dislike of their own parties’ recent past. Corbyn loathes New Labour and thus has no mind to contradict Hammond’s portrayal of it as shoddy and wasteful; May is held back by her dislike of Cameron and Osborne, never praising their achievements, leaving a big void in the middle of the Tory story. It makes both leaders come across as wishy washy a lot of the time; if the big wigs of the two big parties can’t tell us why we should vote for them, how are we the voters to know?
This brings me to my final point: the Tories are almost certainly about to do something about their leadership problem within the next year. Labour, on the other hand, are stuck with their problem for the foreseeable future. And Hammond reminded me again of how a leader who is not Theresa May could fairly easily construct a winning narrative for the Tories. Further, if the Tories are four or five points ahead of Labour now, how far ahead could they get with a leader who gave the country a reason to vote Conservative again instead of assaulting us all with meaningless, almost random soundbites?
Jim Preen says
Really good point about a political party needing a narrative that the public can buy into. As I recall this was Clinton’s whole approach. You say the problem for May is that she loathes the Tory’s recent past, so her story is basically Brexit and nothing else, but Blair managed to create his narrative though the Labour Party had been out of office for 18 years. As neither of our main political parties has a leader in the generally accepted sense of the word, I can’t see where a new British narrative is coming from, other than one that is utterly tainted by Brexit.
Matt (Bristol) says
Don’t always agree with you on the economy, but this issue of a party having a narrative is critical. I think it is a huge part of the LibDem collapse since 2010/2011 (made more complicated by the fact that not only did they need a narrative, they needed a narrative neither of the other two parties could drown out or hijack).
In 2015 I asked a Lib Dem leadership hustings what was the narrative that would explain where the LDs had been and were going – before, during and after coalition – that we could simply put over on the doorstep I got two embarrassed laughs from both Farron and Lamb. They knew they were fighting for leadership of an inchoate mess, and could say nothing without alienating someone.
Paul W says
An interesting, pertinent question and revealing non-answers.