Friday, October 05, 2007

The sound of roosting pigeons

The problem with letting it be widely known that you are strongly considering an autumn election, refusing to rule it out yourself and encouraging your entourage to drop hints left, right and centre that it will be soon, and that it will destroy the Tories, is that it leaves rather a hostage to fortune. As I said the other day, Labour doesn't have the feel of a solidly popular party. The bounce in popularity for Brown has been led by and supported by widespread and largely uncritical media coverage - when Cameron blitzed the newspapers in the summer the Labour lead dropped to almost nothing.
So, again, after a week of favourable coverage of the Tories, the opinion polls shift back towards parity. It may well be that this is an artificial Tory bounce, inspired by the conference and the large amounts of airtime granted to David Cameon in particular. It may equally be a rebalancing of opinion and coverage. I babble on dementedly about the importance of narrative - how central it is to political fortunes to have an easily describable and media-friendly narrative. David Cameron's original story was that of bright young moderniser about to reshape his party along new lines (which is why the comparisons to Blair were made). Brown's was that of a solid, professional figure turning his back on flim-flam and spin and putting his shoulder to the wheel.
But that latter one has been very badly damaged by his disastrous trip to Iraq. At a stroke he revealed low party-political cunning, an opportunistic cynicism and a tendency to mislead over facts and figures. In truth, of course, no-one should have been surprised. The down-and-dirty political tactics were nothing out of the ordinary, even if their timing (during Tory conference week) was against convention. His penchant for double and triple counting good news numbers has also been well documented - so why the surprise this time? In part this was because while the average person gets confused and/or bored by financial data - thereby allowing Brown to count spending promises several times without being caught - we can most of us count to a thousand, and we know what soldiers are. Playing clever politics with troop numbers doesn't look so smart when we can all see what's going on.
But it was partly so important because it fits another ready-made narative. The media are, like most of us, inherently lazy. If there's a perfectly good narrative lying around, they're inclined to use it. So Brown becomes 'more of the same', his 'no more spin' persona is discredited and journos reach for their discarded 'dour, grumpy Scottish git' story that was common wisdom in the Spring. Similarly Cameron now has the most compelling narrative of all - the 'Comeback kid'. That's a story that writes itself really.
So, while Brown sits through a long, dark night of the soul wondering whether an election now would leave him as John Major in 1992 - or Harold Wilson in 1970 - he must, sure;y, be regretting that he allowed his lieutenants to kill a perfectly good story, and replace it with a vrey much less flattering one.

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