Is David Cameron being too nasty to Gordon Brown? That's what Peter Oborne apparently thinks, writing in the Mail yesterday about the increasingly brutal and personal attacks on the PM from the Tory front bench. It's uncivilised, he thinks, unnecessary, demeaning to politics and, ultimately, will turn people off both parties even more. If such a thing were possible.
Cameron is not only destroying Gordon Brown, but risks destroying himself. For the most part, the British electorate are decent people. If David Cameron is not careful, voters will start to come to the conclusion that for all his cleverness, he is an arrogant and perhaps a nasty man.
I have some sympathy with this argument. Attacking the man rather than his policies is, apart from anything else, rather lazy, especially when there's so much in the current government's policies so richly deserving of attack. And Gordon Brown, for all his faults, is hardly the socially-handicapped monster of Blairite mythology. Surrounded by a coterie of loyalists he may be, but the likes of Ed Balls are loyal for a reason. Brown has genuine qualities. He has deep convictions, but (unlike Blair's) convictions based on thought rather than instinct. He has an intellectual grasp that Blair always lacked. Had it not been for the sequence of unlucky events, and, even more so, the plotting of his enemies, he might have continued the success of his first two months in office - a period when, let it not be forgotten, most people were heartily glad to see the back of Blair.
All this is easy to overlook. With the economy worsening and opinion polls nose-diving, Gordon Brown is taking most of the blame. His backbenchers are revolting (most backbenchers are). Some are openly pining for the glorious days of Tony, which is to say that they wish it were still 1997. Blairites, led by Charles Clarke, seem actually to want Brown to fail in order to vindicate their conviction that Tony alone had the ability to run Britain. Some, in contrast, want the socialist policies that they thought would manifest themselves once Brown took over. All, though, are worried about their seats, a fear that paradoxically makes their defeat more likely. Dr Johnson famously observed that if a man know's he is to be hanged in a month, it concentrates the mind wonderfully. When it's a whole group headed for the long-drop, on the other hand, the opposite seems to happen. They start arguing with each other over who bought the rope.
A victory by Ken Livingstone next week might produce a small respite, but with commentators increasingly drawing parallels with the last, calamitous days of John Major's government the natural human instinct to seek a scapegoat has kicked in. And as the anthropologist Sir James Frazer used to maintain, the most potent sacrifice is the king himself. It's hard to imagine, though, that replacing Brown with, say, David Miliband would have a positive impact on Labour's situation. Whatever his manifold faults, Gordon Brown is by far the best thing the party has got. That, in fact, has always been the problem. There's very little talent in depth. How else could you end up with a cabinet most members of which have either been to school with each other, been related to each other, or shared one another's bed?
To some extent, all the Tories need to do is sit back and enjoy the fun. But only to some extent. They also need to have a properly thought-through programme for government, and evolving such a programme, together with the accompanying narrative, is vital. As Boris Johnson is likely to discover to his disadvantage. This doesn't mean, however, that they should expect Labour malcontents to do all the work. Apart from anything else,the opposition would be failing in their duty if they didn't resort to every weapon in their armoury to finish off this discredited government before it manages to do any more damage to the economy, the constitution, the rule of law, civil liberties and the democratic process itself. Morally and intellectually bankrupt it is, worse, incompetent. The Tories should certainly be doing everything they can to point these things out.
After all, Labour has it coming. As Oborne admits, Blair (advised by Alastair Campbell) destroyed the reputation of the fundamentally honest (if not terribly competent) John Major with utter ruthlessness. They gave no quarter, and were not above bare-faced lies of a sort Cameron has not yet attempted. During the 1997 election campaign, the Labour lie machine went into overdrive, for example misrepresenting a moderate scheme for the long-term reform of pensions as a threat to the income of people already retired, or claiming, over and over again, that the dastardly Tories were about to abolish the NHS. They deserve no sympathy whatever.
Where criticism is valid, though, is the contrast between Cameron and co's savaging of Brown and their kid-gloves treatment of Blair. For a whole decade, Blair got away with evasions, misstatements and rhetorical absurdities that no previous PM would have got away with. He manipulated patronage, lied about the opposition and launched at least one illegal war; yet his own estimation of himself as a "pretty straight sort of guy" with the highest of motives and an almost mystical bond with the British people was never seriously challenged by the opposition. His most formidable and successful opponents were on his own backbenches. The up and coming generation of Conservative politicians were, and to a large extent remain, in thrall to him: to his awesome political skills, naturally, but also to the Blair myth. The idea that he was a strong leader who knew what he was doing, whereas Brown is vacillating and has no plan.
In fact, Blair's plan - domestically, at least - was always Brown's plan. The mirage on which his successive election victories were based - the supposed strength of the economy, and the real (if it turns out temporary) rises in living standards - were Brown's doing also. So were the mistakes: the hideously complex and philosophically obnoxious system of tax credits, for example, the ever-rising taxes. Tony Blair got in just in time, just as Gordon Brown got out of the Treasury just in time. If the financial crisis had happened a few months earlier, it would have done irreparable damage to them both.
In truth, the Blairite regime was rarely more than an illusion. It was, however, a remarkably good and effective illusion, and as long as nothing too obvious happened to disturb it the phantasmagoria continued to float in mid-air. If Brown had come to power sustained by a record of solid achievement - whether the credit for that record be Brown's or Blair's - his government would not have evaporated so soon. But it wasn't, and it did, and the game is up.
In his bleaker moments, which must be most of the time, Gordon Brown almost certainly realises this. But do David Cameron and his sidekick George Osborne? I see little reason to discourage them from launching the most ferocious attacks on Brown's personality of which they are capable. Just so long as they don't actually believe them.