The Conservatives cannot believe their luck. They failed to win the last general election; their oft-repeated pledge that the deficit would be eradicated will be missed; and austerity will be extended until 2018 at the least. The economy teeters on the brink of an unprecedented triple-dip recession. They have become entangled in a dark web of power, media and manipulation that struck right at the heart of their Downing Street operation. Key Conservative lieutenants in the media have been either arrested or clouded in suspicion. And yet, one must never underestimate the Conservatives’ capacity to turn adverse events to their advantage.
After two years of the Conservative-led coalition, the 13 years of Labour government might never have been. The Conservatives have become so adept at twisting any and all political machinations to their advantage that they have turned night into day. This is a government which became so incompetent so quickly that it had to stall everything from forest sell-offs to milk for five-year-olds. And yet, in an extraordinary act of political malpractice, the British public reward it with grudging approval for their ability to effortlessly change their minds.
From the economy to phone hacking, the Leveson inquiry, the alternative vote and more besides, none have been the counsel of despair they rightly should have been for the Conservatives. All have presented Labour the opportunity to show what it stands for. And yet, the Conservatives have triumphed each and every time.
The Conservatives have by and large succeeded in promulgating the argument that the deepest and most prolonged financial crisis to hit Britain was solely the fault of the Labour party. With nauseating gall, not only have they pinned blame on the Labour party, they have presented themselves as the gallant gentlemen picking up the pieces after Labour had the misfortune to rule. The resulting fiscal deficits that were accrued from rescuing the crumbling banks has been redefined as entailing unheralded cuts to public spending and social welfare.
But it’s not only on the economy that the Conservatives have successfully shifted the terms of debate. Their escape from the clutches of the phonehacking inquiry was pure Houdini. The prime minister employed a former news editor who is, and was at the time, mired in serious allegations of phone hacking. The Conservatives’ cheerleader-in-chief at the last general election, Rebekah Brooks, is also facing similar charges. And yet, no sooner had the prime minister launched the Leveson inquiry then he stoically portrayed the Conservatives as the doughty defender of a free press. A visibly scared media rallied round the prime minister, and lobbied ferociously for their continued splendour. The government’s announcement last week on its conclusions from the inquiry will see no legislative regulation of the press at all.
On the alternative vote the Tories knew that they must never undermine the legitimacy of a voting system which is designed to confer disproportionate Conservative rule. So, having allowed their coalition allies their cherished referendum, they duly set about annihilating it. Coalition harmony, and the stability of national government, was secondary to defeating the threat to their predominance. Their dominance had also been threatened in the Lords, where Labour had rightly recognised during their time in government a need to redress the political balance. So, Cameron duly created more peers more quickly than any of his post-war predecessors, having ennobled 117 new Lords in just under a year.
The true Conservative masterstroke in regard to their coalition partner has come in their deliberate strategy of envelopment. The junior party has sunk to toxic levels of unpopularity which, come the next election, will all but destroy the historic third party – thus reaffirming Britain’s antiquated electoral system from which the Conservatives so benefit.
These are examples, and there are more, where the Labour party’s initial analysis would have been one of ample opportunity. The next battlefield may well be over a number of key policy issues, from Europe, to the cuts, to immigration. But at the forefront of Labour’s mind must now, and forever be, that the Conservatives have shown time and time again they can seize opportunities, turn it to their advantage, and bury their opposition all in one go.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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