David Cameron and his team have a new nickname for Her Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition: Mystic Ed, the world’s worst clairvoyant.
The PM believes the Labour leader is building up a harmful record of predicting doom and disaster everywhere – spiralling unemployment and unsustainable cuts only to be proved wrong.
It’s an obvious gag. It’s classic Cameron. But it also tells a story about the premier’s deadly serious approach to defining himself against his rival for the Number 10 crown. His point is that the Conservative leadership have been much more strategic than Mr Miliband.
And he believes voters will reward him and chancellor George Osborne for their judgment in prescribing the right remedy for the economy.
Not only that. But they will respect the pair for having the guts to stand by plan A when the world seemed to be demanding plan B.
Sure, there are tactical inflections on their way.
The PM has decided Help to Buy is “retail gold”. He has ordered staff to ensure he meets couples taking advantage of the £10,000 assistance on offer whenever he goes on a regional visit. He firmly believes the nation will warm to the Tories for offering the average person the chance to buy an average house. After all, it’s not much to ask in today’s world, he thinks.
“We’re in for a long, hard fight,” reveals one adviser who sees the PM most days. “We can’t afford to stop pushing, to take our foot off the gas, to stop winning the argument. The maths are skewed against us. The PM believes firmly we can win this, but it won’t happen by magic.”
This means not rushing to clobber energy firms with fresh windfall taxes. Critics will accuse the PM of being in the pockets of big business, but the principles are clear: tight fiscal policy, loose monetary policy, and open door to inward investment, thanks to a competitive tax regime and world-class schooling for future generations.
Cameron never tires of telling his team, “We are about curing the disease, not treating the symptoms”. Tory high command believes Labour is trying to “switch channels” and write off the economic legacy it left, and it’s felt that by accepting Conservative budgets in the future, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls hope they can escape the blame for the past mess.
But the Conservative Research Unit, now beginning to get back into its stride as a feared attack machine, isn’t about to let voters forget that the deficit hasn’t been cleared. It’ll take years yet to fix this structural albatross around Britain’s neck, and this is what Cameron and George Osborne mean by curing the disease.
Things are in a much better place for the coalition. Another round of good employment and GDP numbers have buoyed spirits in Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, but only to serve as evidence that the plan is working. It’s this that has managed to reduce the polling gap from 11 to just five points.
Now ministers need voters to feel better off, and that isn’t expected to happen until a year from now at the earliest.
I expect more policies around welfare and immigration. The policy of ensuring no one on welfare can earn more than those on Britain’s average wage has received 82% popularity in private polling for Cameron, but why not go further? Why not update that policy so that people on handouts must get less than average wages?
These new policies will be delivered by a fresh batch of very smart ministers, both men and women. Cameron, it’s believed, has just executed a first in British politics – what’s being dubbed in Westminster as a ‘pre-shuffle’. The PM’s decision to shake up his middle and junior ranks was preparation for a major cabinet reshuffle next June.
However, Cameron has faced some criticism for failing to increase the number of women sitting around the cabinet table, while others have argued that he missed a chance to get shot of deadwood in the top team.
But, as part of an election-winning strategy, the PM and chancellor agreed on moving the next wave of cabinet figures into position to give them time to prepare for high office, and that reshuffle will take place after the European elections in May 2014. Swiftly, the premier will move figures like Matthew Hancock, Esther McVey and Sajid Javid into cabinet, and out will go Sir George Young and Ken Clarke, and others.
There will be more women around the cabinet table by then, and a brand-new team energised for the general election fight.
So, it’s likely that next year’s party conference will be a rally. This year’s was sober, professional, workmanlike, unshowy and unflashy.
Some claimed it was an Osborne reshuffle. But it wasn’t. the chancellor and PM continue to work together, text each other most days and, between them, have embarked on the 2015 general election campaign.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications