English Summer of Cuddly Tories and Hard-Line Labour: A.A. Gill

A balmy spring is turning into a nutty British summer. This is, traditionally, a time when politicians let their sartorial guard, and the voters, down.

One whiff of SPF 40 and a glimpse of their new wife-bought shorts with the puce hibiscus, and they say the first thing that comes into their receding heads.

We’ve just had a party leader call for those who have jobs to be given priority to jump the line for public housing, saying that he isn’t going to lead the party for so-called scroungers. We’ve had another party leader insist that, despite the flat-lining economy, he thinks we should still give 0.7 percent of gross domestic product as foreign aid, which will make Britain one of the most charitable nations in the world.

Neither of these are exceptional statements: What makes them odd is that the first was made by Ed Miliband -- “Red Ed” -- leader of the Labour party, while the second was proposed by toff at the top, David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister.

The traditional left and right in British politics are tearing the shirts off each other’s backs to see whether they fit, tapping the enemy’s messages, stealing their best lines. We’ve had Tony Blair, the old New Labour prime minister, say that he supports the Tory government’s economic strategy, and a Labour shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, demand an immediate cut on the value-added tax.

The Conservatives are defying the tabloids by talking about cutting sentences and retreating from plans to privatize parts of the National Health Service, while explaining that this is flexible, sensitive government. No one has accused the Tories of being sensitive about anything except blood sports and military bands in 200 years.

Labour Versus Labor

The autumn looks like it’ll be a harvest of orchestrated public service strikes. The Labour Party is dreading them; the Tories are looking forward to the fight. Miliband sees organized labor as a liability; the government sees it as a vote-winner.

So, hang on. How are any of us supposed to know who’s who? Which tribe do we belong to? What’s happening out there?

Well, there are some clues. Having gracelessly lost the last election, the Labour Party has, in the nature of graceless socialist losers, contrived to make it all much worse by electing the wrong gunfighter as leader. Some observers from the “Sex and the City” school of political commentary point out, though, that Miliband is what’s known as their “transitional guy,” the rebound boyfriend, the one who takes the edge off the hurt. He’s not supposed to stick around.

Miliband is a long way to the left of New Labour, and, in the face of rising party frustration and a queue of grinning Brutuses, he’s trying to shuffle to the center without moving. So the other day he let it be known that he was a sneaking fan of Margaret Thatcher: in theory, not practice, obviously.

Tories Getting Cuddly

The Conservative Party, having achieved power without actually winning the election (it is in a forced marriage with the Liberal Democrats), is just as desperately trying to look socially cuddly and liberal. By conviction Cameron is what we call a One Nation Tory, from the shallow end of the party. After 13 years in opposition, he wants to occupy as much of the middle as possible, and at the same time disengage his own frothingly combative right wing.

He, bizarrely, sees himself as the natural heir to Tony Blair. His pet policy, the Big Society -- a sort of volunteerist, inclusive scouting-for-citizens -- reduces both the Labourites and his own flag-wrapped fellow Tories to eye-rolling mockery.

Special-Interest Wonks

If you think all that’s confusing, then join the rest of the country. The Labour Party has been holed below the waterline, its New Labour experiment torn down to reveal that the Old Labour certainties no longer exist. It consists of a disparate and bad-tempered group of special-interest wonks, bobbing in the lifeboats of the socialist movement.

The Conservative Party, too, has been routed by the election and the experience of a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. It has jettisoned the old shibboleths, like aircraft carriers, Scottish regiments, monetarism, privatization and neckties.

Both sides seem to realize that for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be about who can stand the longest on the pivot of events and put a smiley face on the fiscal hardships. No one wants the vision thing at the moment, or the testosterone buzzwords of leadership.

All About Empathy

It’s now all about empathy: Changing your mind is the new horizon. The biggest change is that perhaps all of this is a natural consequence of a century of fully emancipated democracy -- political Darwinism, where the extremes die out and the grosser injustices are whittled away. As the differences grow smooth, to stray from the path of the fittest is to court extinction.

Perhaps it’s just a domestic hiatus after a terrible fiscal accident: political bed rest, while the big economic decisions are being made by Brussels, Berlin and Beijing.

Either way, it’s a fair bet that the Conservative and Labour parties that square up behind Cameron and Miliband at the next election will be very different from those that gathered around Thatcher and Blair.

(A.A. Gill is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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