It was bitter, brutal politics: a Budget that launched the election
In the last month Gordon Brown has made two personal gestures to David Cameron. The first was to send flowers to congratulate the Conservative leader on the birth of his son, and the second was to fashion his Budget into a no less direct political message saying, ‘I will destroy you.’ His speech on Wednesday was not about the shape of the British economy, but the shape of the weapon Labour requires to fight the Conservatives. This much was inevitable; what is striking are the tactics which Cameron has developed in counter-attack.
His most biting remarks came not in his Budget response, but in an interview last month. ‘With Blair at Question Time, there is a sort of jokiness between us,’ he told the Sunday Times magazine. ‘But with Brown it is literally, “You are evil, you are dead, I will kill you, I will stamp you into the ground until my boot is banging up and down on your face.”’ It was a graphic image of an unpleasant, even brutal man — a verbal version of the notorious 1997 ‘Demon Eyes’ poster of Blair, designed by Steve Hilton, the marketing guru then at M&C Saatchi and now at the very heart of the Cameron operation.
British politics is about to be defined by the bitter personal antagonism developing between these two men. Brown sees an inconsequential toff who represents the old Tory establishment. Cameron sees the ultimate Labour command-and-control politician. Hilton and Cameron have judged, correctly, that Brown’s poor communication skills will be Labour’s most vulnerable point at the next election — so their strategy is to sketch the outlines of an ogre, and hope that Brown will fill in the rest of the picture himself by the sheer force of his attack.
Brown has informed No. 10 Downing Street that he intends to demolish Cameron’s policies but treat the man himself as little more than an irritant who does not deserve to compete, far less win, in the major league of world politics. In the next general election he will portray himself as a political titan facing competition from a pygmy. And this is exactly how Brown played their historic first encounter on Budget day.
During his speech he made a couple of derisory references to Cameron’s role advising Norman Lamont on Black Wednesday and cutting tax on ‘flip flops’ — a weak joke referring to the Conservatives’ various policy changes in the last 100 days. When the Budget speech ended, and Cameron launched his commendably spirited response, Brown chatted idly to Blair as if the debate had ended (which, in his mind, it had). Cameron asked them both to listen (‘I know they only get to talk to each other on Budget day’) but they contemptuously ignored him.
The text of the Budget showed that Brown had paid the utmost attention to the novelties which Cameron has introduced to politics since his election. For example, internal polling from both Labour and Conservative shows Cameron way ahead for the women’s vote. So in his Budget speech Brown pledged to ‘address the unacceptable discrimination in women’s pay’ — offering higher salaries in addition to year-long maternity leave.
Next, Cameron has pulled ahead in the under-30s vote. Remarkably for an opposition leader, he has started to assemble a youth volunteer force which will be a prototype for what he wishes to introduce in government. In the Budget, Brown sought to trump him, announcing various £500,000 cashpots for youth and community facilities schemes.
Cameron has also made waves by inviting outsiders to advisory panels: an innovation which has caught the public imagination. Almost gratuitously, Brown has compiled his own economic advisory panel with names like Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and JeanPierre Garnier, the head of GlaxoSmithKline. It is a gimmick: they will meet three times over three years. Their only purpose is to outgun anything which Cameron can draw up in the future.
But most striking is the Chancellor’s sudden and compelling interest in the environment. In his nine years in the Treasury, Brown has never devoted a speech to the subject, leaving this to Blair and the small army of scientists the Prime Minister has silently assembled. So it was remarkable to hear Brown offer to help people to generate their own renewable energy, just as Cameron himself is doing by fitting a wind turbine atop his new house. Brown has now claimed this as his agenda, and will roll it out across the country.
The final touch was the hint of class war in the way the Treasury leaked its gratuitous tax on 4x4 vehicles. An added £210 a year to the £35,000 price-tags on such vehicles will hardly be a disincentive to their ownership. But Brown was making a political point: he wishes to define himself against the drivers of the so-called ‘Chelsea tractors’ around west London. It is a thinly coded message: Brown’s Labour party stands for curbing the excesses of wealthy urbanites like Cameron and his friends in Notting Hill. Against the advice of No. 10 Downing Street, Brown believes this agenda — essentially one of inverted snobbery — will work when fighting Cameron.
This is where Brown enters dangerous territory. I understand that Alastair Campbell, who had agreed to help the Chancellor ease his way into No. 10, has now given up in despair that his advice is not being taken. He warned Brown not to dismiss Cameron too lightly — and that the British public, like the Conservative membership, could not care less that Cameron is an Old Etonian. But to Brown, this is a crucial defining factor.
As Campbell found, Brown does not change course. And this is precisely Cameron’s line of attack: yes, he is a strong man, but he is also a dangerous one, raising taxes when all Britain’s global competitors are cutting them. He has had many Budgets to adjust for the needs of the environment and globalisation: why should we believe he has changed his mind now? The stronger Brown is, Cameron will argue, the more concerned the public should be. Britain needs a leader who will give power back to the people — not one who hoards it for himself.
Cameron’s office has been struck by focus group research comparing politicians to vehicles. Cameron is compared to a sports car an aspirational if not quite robust model. Brown is considered the equivalent of a tank. The problem for the Conservatives is that voters prefer a tank if there is a war on.
This is exactly the image Brown is trying to create. In the Budget, India and China were once again conjured up as economic enemies, posing a mortal danger to the British economy by ‘churning out 4 million graduates a year’ as if they were offensive weapons in a game of zero-sum world trade. His implication is that Britain needs a strong man — and must choose between a peerless Chancellor and a man whose economic experience amounted to carrying Norman Lamont’s bags. The narrative of global economic warfare is crucial to Brown’s theme.
Just as Brown shaped the Budget to thwart Cameron, he can be expected to shape government policies in the same way. Cameron cannot overpower the Chancellor; all he can do is attempt some political judo, turn Brown’s weight against him — and a decade after the ‘Demon Eyes’ poster was conceived, persuade Britain that Brown is the menace behind the fading Blairite grin.