Thursday, March 24, 2005

Michael Howard is not a Banana

(...nor is the £35 billion in reduced spending over 7 years equivalent to "cuts")

Again, apologies that this story is now almost a week old, but it is a revealing one nonetheless and many Canadian readers (or Paddy's day revellers) may have easily missed it. In a video clip less than 3 minutes long, both the admirable and the deceitful qualities of Tony Blair are on full display, the sophistication of the British media shows itself in fine form, and a rare glimpse into the truth of the Blair-Brown rivalry is thrown in for good measure. At the same time, this story also goes to the route of the ongoing campaign and some articles in today's Times on Michael Howard, bloody noses, and bananas. First, let me set the stage...

Following last Wednesday's budget, Labour held a press conference on Friday to launch the poster above - accusing Tories of cutting 35 Billion Pounds from Public Services. Sounds like quite a lot, no? And if true, a telling attack. Well, something didn't seem to add up here, and so ITV's Nick Robinson had a go at the Prime Minister in rather harsh terms. Simon Carr in the Independent described the exchange as follows:
Nick said: "Why do you persist in misrepresenting your opponents’ policies? You know they are saying they will increase spending but at a slower rate?"

"Actually, that is not what they’re saying," the Prime Minister started, speaking more quickly to bring off the semantic three-card trick we now know so well.

“You can’t cut money that hasn’t been spent," Nick said. "You’re alleging they’ll make cuts. But now you’re saying they’ll spend less. The words are different!"

"They’re not different," the Prime Minister said urgently, stepping across Gordon’s grin. What a hound he is, our Prime Minister, when he’s on form. What he says may not be true but that’s not important. What is important is what works.

But - you could see the scary thought scribbling itself across the PM’s forehead -
what if it doesn’t work any more? The very same thought was driving Mr Brown’s delighted smile.
God love the BBC, you can actually watch the clip live (click on the upper right hand side of the screen) and judge for yourself, though the reporter's questions are a bit hard to make out. To his credit, Blair does handle the matter rather deftly - can you imagine Paul Martin or George Bush under similar questioning? - but ultimately the whole matter rests on a deception so ridiculous as to be offensive. And Brown's broad smile is difficult to miss. Did he object to this tactic, and did such objections fall on deaf ears?

If you read the articles summarizing the conference (see the Telegraph, or the Guardian, or the Scotsman) you'll see that the alleged "cuts" actually refer to the difference between increases in public spending by 3% (Labour) or 2% (Tories). The £35 billion figure? The resulting difference by the year 2011-2012!! So ridiculous is the claim that Conservative leader Michael Howard has a piece in the Times today entitled: "If those are cuts, then I'm a banana". Imagine Blair's outrage if the Liberal Democrats were to come out with a 4% figure for increases and then accuse him of promoting "cuts" to the public service.

So finally we have an example of spin doctors going overboard and getting called for it. It's unsurprising then, that movements such as www.backingblair.co.uk have emerged, urging protests votes against the Prime Minister. And it's moments like these, effrontery such as this, that have been fueling a slow-buring Conservative comeback. As Antole Kaletsky writes in his election prediction in the Times today:
"Like every other pundit, I expect Labour to win. I differ from many others in believing that the victory margin will be narrow, probably no more than half of the 100-odd majority suggested by a literal reading of the polls. This will not be because of the Tories’ success in spreading their subliminal messages of paranoia (“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”), but simply because so many voters now hate Tony Blair and are determined to give him a bloody nose. In a reversal of the anti-Tory tactical voting of the past two elections, many disillusioned voters will try to send the Prime Minister a message by backing whichever opposition party can do most damage to Labour in each seat."

I agree with the prediction. Go read the whole thing. Lots to think about as we await the dropping of the writ, but the overall point is clear. The British media has been doing its part to ensure that leaders cannot simply get away lightly with demonization of the other side backed by misleading argument. Canadian journalists would do well to abide by these lessons.

And Canadian conservatives would do well to study the pre-election strategies of Michael Howard that have provided crucial momentum. But that's a subject for tomorrow's post.


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