Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Political journalists are sometimes accused of stretching a point when they try to argue that history is repeating itself. But the plight of David Cameron does have uncanny similarities with the fate of John Major almost twenty years ago.

Then as now the politics of the Conservative Party were being driven by the Tory Euro-sceptics’ demand for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Back in the 1990s, during the long haul to the general election of 1997 – and the Conservatives’ eventual wipe out – a political maverick was taunting the Prime Minister.

John Major’s bête noire was the billionaire Sir James Goldsmith who was funding the Referendum Party and paying for a splurge of posters and newspaper advertisements which promoted withdrawal from a federal Europe and called for Britain to return to a common trading market.

Two decades later the sceptics’ flag bearer is not an overbearing grandee but a larger-than-life Nigel Farrage, the bloke next door, only too happy to share a pint and explain why the United Kingdom should free itself from the clutches of the Brussels bureaucracy.

More importantly, UKIP ­– which back then was in its political infancy – is now a far deadlier threat than Goldsmith’s cheque book.  Having been endowed with political stardust, Farrage has the ability, at least for the moment, to mobilise the floating voter, that Holy Grail for every party strategist.

A failure to avoid an ill-judged photo-opportunity – or an inability to exploit unexpected mishaps – is often a pointer to the chances of eventual success in British politics.

David Miliband’s inept appearance at the 2008 Labour Party conference – walking along holding up a banana in his hand – was instantly captured by photographers and was an image which came back to haunt him.

Indeed the former Labour Foreign Secretary – now to be the new chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, a leading American humanitarian charity – never seemed entirely at home in the cut-and-thrust of the cruel interface between British politics and an unforgiving news media.

Today’s politicians, as demonstrated so colourfully by the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, have to always have an eye on how their every move in public is likely to interpreted – or misinterpreted –  by the tabloid press.

David Miliband’s goofy photo-opportunity was a political car crash. It provided the most unforgettable, and much reproduced, image of the 2008 party conference season and came to symbolise his lack of a killer instinct.

When the chips had been down earlier that summer, when Gordon Brown was floundering as Labour Prime Minister, Miliband fluffed his chance to launch a bid for the Labour leadership; he showed he was no Michael Heseltine, more of a Michael Portillo

Lynton Crosby’s appointment as David Cameron’s head of campaign strategy is the clearest signal yet that it will be “business as usual” when the Conservative Party tries again to manipulate the news agenda in the long lead-up to the 2015 general election.

Like his two most infamous fellow travellers – Alastair Campbell and Andy Coulson – Crosby has an innate understanding of the ups and downs of 24-hour news... and the ruthlessness that is needed to take on the British media.

Crosby shares with the two ACs – Campbell and Coulson – an ability to identify key election messages and then reinforce them relentlessly through press campaigns.  All three have seemed to get a kick out of riding the tiger of the British news agenda.   

At the age of fifty-five, Crosby is also one of the great survivors among political spin doctors having been dubbed the “Wizard of Oz” for his success in helping to pull off four election victories for the Australian Prime Minister John Howard between 1996 and 2007.

His one set back in the UK, his failure to pilot Michael Howard to victory for the Conservatives in the 2005 general election, was followed by his double whammy of success in the London Mayoral elections running Boris Johnson’s 2008 campaign and then his re-election in 2012.    

Let me start with a question. Do the annual party conferences serve a useful purpose? Yes they do. And I’ll explain why. But their impact on the democratic process is nothing like it once was. The reason is simple: presentation now takes precedence over policy. 

Instead of being the forum which used to have a significant role in determining the polices a party might adopt, the conferences have now become a showcase at which to present the party and its leadership in the best possible light, more like an American political convention.

Labour Party conferences once played a vital role in influencing issues like taxation, employment law or long-running controversies such as nuclear disarmament. Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences also made a significant contribution to their decision-making processes but today they’re more about news management than giving the membership a say in deciding what the policies will be.  

Trade union outrage over Ed Miliband’s support for the coalition government’s  public sector pay freeze – and even the prospect of wage cuts to protect jobs – has echoes of the confrontation twenty years ago when rank and file labour activists were dragged kicking and screaming into accepting Margaret Thatcher’s employment laws.

However short-lived it might prove to be, an assault on the perceived power union bosses is almost always guaranteed to win support from the Sun and other Conservative-supporting newspapers; the determination of the “Red Eds” to take on the “Reds” seems destined to provide plenty of fodder for the headline writers.

Trevor Kavanagh’s first reaction piece in the Sun to the opening salvo by the shadow chancellor Ed Balls – heralding Labour’s first step towards the endorsement of coalition policy – had a classic headline: “Labour has finally found the Balls to tackle union barons must listen”. (Sun 16 January, 2012).

 Kavanagh could hardly hide his glee that the “dinosaurs who run Britain’s giant unions” were once again in the firing line. He regarded Balls’ declaration of support for the coalition’s three-year pay freeze as “effectively endorsing its entire economic austerity programme.”