An attack puppy

Are the Tories losing their bite?

Artillery Row

A story, briefed by “a friend of the chancellor”: Jeremy Hunt is considering extending the freeze in fuel duty. Motorists might welcome this, but it would not shock them: the Conservatives have not increased fuel duty for over a decade, and they even cut it a year ago, consistently considering this a worthwhile use of several billion pounds even when finding savings elsewhere.

Another story, briefed by another Conservative source (or maybe the same source) the previous day: Labour has been behaving with the kind of fiscal indiscipline that disqualifies them from being taken seriously as a party of government. Specifically, Labour has announced a staggering £45 billion in unfunded spending commitments since the start of 2023.

What do these two stories have in common, apart from coming from the Conservatives? Well, in one, freezing fuel duty at a cost of £5.7 billion is something Jeremy Hunt is prudently considering. In the other, freezing fuel duty, at a cost of £5.7 billion, is something Rachel Reeves is profligately considering. The exact same spending commitment, over just two days, is both a terrible idea that shows how much Labour can’t be trusted and a great idea that shows how much the Tories care.

It is juxtapositions like this that make one wonder whether the Tory attack operation is being run by people who follow politics.

The big Labour story on childcare so far is precisely the lack of a policy

It’s not just fuel duty that makes the £45 billion number dubious. Half of it — £22.3 billion — has allegedly been committed by Labour to “childcare for all children aged nine months to 11 years”. Leave to one side the costing, which is, to be generous, arguable. The bigger weakness in the argument is the fact that Labour — quite conspicuously, for those who take an interest in these things — has no such policy. Indeed, the big Labour story on childcare so far is precisely the lack of a policy on this scale, despite strong pressure on the party to come up with one. For the Tories to assert that Labour has a far more comprehensive and attractive childcare policy than Labour in fact has (or than the Tories have), for the sake of making a big scary number look bigger and scarier, is an interesting strategic choice.

The Tories’ £45 billion dossier of Labour spending plans appears, so far, to have had little impact, perhaps partly because it is so poor. It lacks the two things this kind of document needs to be credible: authentic examples of things your opponents have promised to do, and plausible calculations of what they would cost. It is a sign that the Conservative attack operation, once so formidable, is losing its way.

Just nine months ago, Durham Constabulary reopened its investigation into “beergate”, the allegation that Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner may have broken lockdown rules in the course of a pause for food during a campaigning event. At the time, it was reportedly celebrated by CCHQ as the “most successful political attack in living memory”. Now, two prime ministers later, with Starmer and Rayner cleared of any wrongdoing and Labour twenty points ahead in the polls, that delight seems misplaced.

Whilst you would have to be a very young child to think of beergate as the most successful political attack in living memory — and who knows, maybe the CCHQ staffer who said this is a very young child — the confected scandal did indeed have an impact, when measured in front pages splashed and discomfort caused to the Labour Party. It managed this despite, in the end, having nothing to it, which illustrates the Conservative Party attack operation’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. Its greatest strength is that it can get any old rubbish into the papers. Its greatest weakness is that this has a knock-on effect on quality control.

The Tory attack operation is likely to get worse before it gets better

Some in the Labour Party complain that the Conservatives get to play politics on easy mode. There is some truth to this. After the EU referendum, in which staffers from all parties worked together on the Remain campaign, one non-Tory was quoted as saying, “Every time the Mail gave them a bad headline we’d say, ‘Welcome to our world. In the end, the people who say it have to get over it: the easy mode opponent against whom the Tories get to play is the Labour Party (which should tell us something about the Labour Party). The media environment in which the contest takes place is the only one we have.

Nevertheless, the Tories have reasons to be concerned that their attack operation is likely to get worse before it gets better. For one thing, it is not clear what message the Tories want to land about Keir Starmer, a problem previously experienced by Labour in relation to Boris Johnson, and the Tories in relation to Tony Blair. Is he a secret Corbynite? If so, then he’s disguising it so well that no Corbynite has noticed. Was he only pretending to back Jeremy Corbyn? Well, then he’s not a secret Corbynite. 

Effective attack requires clarity of message. The recently reported directive from No. 10 to special advisers to “come up with an ‘attack’ on their opposite minister or department every week” is a recipe for lack of clarity, proliferation of messages, and focus on the wrong things. One of the biggest temptations for shadow ministers, as I found when working for Labour in opposition, is to try to attack their opposite number rather than recognising that no one normal has heard of their opposite number and that they need to keep their eyes on the big picture. That’s doubly true in government: shadow ministers are even less famous than ministers, who in any case are supposed to be running the country.

It may be too much for Labour to hope that shoddy dossiers, contradictory messages and scattergun attacks on the wrong people are all the Tories have on them between now and the next election. Despite all the evidence, they must be better at it than this, surely. If this really is all there is, Labour doesn’t have much to worry about. 

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