David Cameron proclaimed last weekend that he had a "patriotic duty" to win the election, and he's not wrong. Five more years of Gordon Brown is more than the country can bear. Yet there was surprisingly little urgency in his voice. Benedict Brogan, for one, is puzzled by the apparent willingness of the Tory high command to let Labour make all the running in recent weeks. Accusing the Opposition leadership of "self-satisfied complacency", he writes:
It’s as if they don’t have a dog in this fight, as if they have walked off the battlefield sniffling because – sob – those tewwible bullies are too wough. The bcest defence is a good offence, as Vince Lombardi used to say (or was it Yogi Berra?), but offence we have had none. The Tory communications machine has not been, well, communicating. Instead it has let itself be bitch slapped by Peter Mandelson, including this morning in the Guardian. In the past we’ve heard the whisperings that the Tory high command is directed by a sense of entitlement, but I reckon the real problem is that the leadership is not sufficiently directed by an all-consuming, nail biting desire to win.
I agree. You get the sense that while many in the Tory leadership would quite like to win the election, would rather win than not win - if they had to choose, which of course they do - it wouldn't utterly be the end of the world if Gordon Brown sneaks back in to Downing Street. The situation in Labour is rather different. There has long been an expectation of defeat, which often brings with it a kind of acceptance, like a terminal illness, and some (such as James Purnell) have left already or made plans for a post-government or post-politics future. But those who believe that victory is possible - an increasing number - are beginning to clutch at the possibility with desperation and tenacity quite lacking in the Tory high command. They really, really want to stay in government, for some reason. Perhaps it's the attendant perks.
Here are some reasons the Conservatives aren't hungry enough:
1) It might be better to lose. The next five years will not be fun, after all: the fiscal situation is ruinous - for reasons partly to do with the banking crisis and the international economic situation, but also because the scope of the public sector has expanded relentlessly under Labour. At least half the economy is now accounted for by the state. The true figure is undoubtedly much higher, since the past decade has also seen a huge growth in expenditure on servicing the demands of the state - ensuring compliance with regulations, filling out forms, sending employees on awareness courses, etc - all of this activity not contributing a penny to the real national income.
Since much of the regulatory economy is now written into law, the axe will swing where it will hurt most, on front-line services, and the result will be massive unpopularity for whoever is in government. Poetic justice would best be served if it is Labour which is compelled to clear up its own mess, and destroys itself in the process. It would have been better for their long-term interests, after all, if the Conservatives had lost in 1992 and Neil Kinnock had taken the rap for Black Wednesday - though it may be doubted if it would have been better for the country.
Looking beyond the next few years, there's a sense of pessimism about the future of the country that hasn't been seen since the Seventies. Matthew Parris is particularly gloomy at the moment. In Saturday's Times he was predicting that "our national standard of living is set to be ratcheted down a good couple of points relative to other nations — and permanently, not just for a few years." That's declinist talk, the sort of thing I used to imagine that Mrs Thatcher had kicked out of the national psyche at around the time she recaptured the Falklands. It used to be all-pervasive. Wise former politicians explained that Britain's inevitable destiny was to become poorer than Albania, while diplocay and economic policy was all about "managing decline". If Parris - who is, of course, well-connected in the Conservative party - is reflecting a spreading mood of defeatism about the future of the nation, it may partly explain the slackening of lust for power.
2) Labour's failures are too obvious. The election ought to be a shoo-in, given the fundamentals - indeed, the question most often posed by political commentators is "why aren't the Tories doing better?" One possible answer is that they are - that the polls are misleading, or at least that when faced at the ballot box with the horrible prospect of five more years of Brown, Balls and Harman the electorate will hold its collective nose and vote for the least worst option. That's a seductive thought, especially since Cameron's strategy has been one of removing reasons not to vote Tory rather than providing compelling reasons to do so. That way lies danger. The next government needs to have the confidence of the nation if it is to do what needs to be done. Otherwise it will itself lack confidence to change course with sufficient decisiveness. Cameron's success in decontaminating the Tory brand has left the party smelling too strongly of vanilla. The party lacks a clear identity.
3) They don't have that much at stake. Being over-privileged toffs, the leading Conservative politicians have been less affected by many other people by Labour's economic mismanagement. There are many people in the country who have reason to be enraged at Gordon Brown's government - and many of them are grassroots Tory supporters. But that abiding anger doesn't inspire those around David Cameron who see only that most members of their social circle have got considerably richer over the past decade. The desire to reduce inheritance tax, though real, is far weaker than Labour politicians' desire to keep their sort of people - the quangocrats and the public sector administrators - in the style to which they have become accustomed.
4) The voting system is so biased against the Conservatives that they will have a ready excuse for defeat. If Labour wins - as it may do, with a small working majority - it will do so with the lowest share of the vote attained by any winning party ever. It may even have fewer votes than the Conservatives. It will certainly have fewer votes, and quite possibly fewer seats, than the Tories in England. This ought to be a source of intense bitterness. Indeed, the staggering pro-government bias of the voiting system is a national scandal that ought to be the chief focus of political debate in the run up to the election - for it is the people, not just the Conservative party, who stand to be cheated by it. Pointing it out to an largely uncomprehending electorate should form a major plank in the Conservative campaign. If their current insouciance is indicative, however, the Tory leadership will just shrug its shoulders and say "c'est la vie".
5) They don't have a sufficient sense of entitlement. This may sound paradoxical, given that the Tory leadership is often criticised for acting as though the election is in the bag. But there's a difference between complacently awaiting the swing of the pendulum - which is a belief that politics is about taking turns and that your turn will eventually come - and a driving sense that only your party should be allowed to form the government, because only your party has a moral right to govern. That is what, in its bones, the Labour party has always believed. "Labour is a moral crusade or it is nothing," said Harold Wilson, and generations of Labour politicians and activists have agreed with him. It's an attitude fundamentally inimical to compromise, or to the democratic sense that politics is about offering voters a choice between imperfect alternatives.
For Conservatives, Labour politicians are mostly well-intentioned but wrong, while for Labour the Tories are evil. Class hatred is part of it, but an even stronger propellant is the sense that Conservatism isn't merely politically but morally beyond the pale. Even many Liberal Democrats (though not Nick Clegg) share this innate Toryphobia - which means that the party would find it hard to work with a minority Cameron administration.
Labour now feels a sense of urgency to "stop the Tories" and the evil things that they suppose the Tories would do in power - abolish the NHS, feed babies into incinerators as part of a scheme to hasten global warming, or whatever. The Labour lie machine will be working overtime during the campaign. Rather than running on its abysmal record, Labour plans to make the election a referendum on the Conservatives, for whom the voters have only lukewarm enthusiasm. It's like the gazelle and the cheetah - the gazelle is running for its life, the cheetah merely for its lunch.