Today, at the Tories' spring conference in Brighton, David Cameron will deliver what will be widely and hysterically trailed as the "speech of his life". Well, he's delivered a fair few of those in the past four years, and he certainly has a talent for the genre. The Tory leader has grown used to the hyperbole that precedes such performances. Which is not to say that he is blasé about today's address. Far from it: this will be a speech without notes, and – given the Tories' position in the opinion polls – it has to be a belter.
What has gone wrong, and how bad is it? Here we have a Prime Minister plausibly accused of intimidating his junior staff, and a serving Chancellor of the Exchequer willing to declare (in a remarkable interview with Jeff Randall on Sky) that his boss unleashed the "forces of hell" upon him in August 2008 as punishment for telling the truth about the economic crisis. Last month, Gordon Brown fought off yet another coup attempt – the fourth or fifth of his brief premiership, depending upon how you are counting. Although microscopic growth has returned, the painful symptoms of recession are still being felt across the land. Against such a background, oughtn't the Conservative Party to be 20 points ahead in the polls, rather than six or seven?
Lord Mandelson – using language that only he could get away with – accused the Tories of "willy wobbling all over the place". While the Cameroons would certainly deny any such "wobbling", they make little attempt in private to conceal their concern about the polls so close to election day – a mere 66 days, assuming Gordon goes to the country on May 6. Indeed, it would be odd if they were not concerned. For an Opposition on the brink of office, after many years in the wilderness, the polls at this stage are meant to be the calming influence that stops them going crazy with nerves. No such luck for the Tories in 2010: this one is going to the wire.
The manifest danger for the party is that all manner of false conclusions will be drawn from the narrowing of the polls. As ever, the poll wobble is being used to attack the modernising strategy that (as is so easily forgotten) got the party back into contention after three comprehensive general election defeats. Not enough tough promises, say others. It is important that the Conservatives have a plausible fiscal policy, but I very much doubt that an even longer list of the spending cuts they intend to make will improve their poll position.
Imagine Pete and Dud at the pub.
Pete: You know, Dud. These Tories wouldn't know a Laffer Curve if it crossed the road to punch them.
Dud: Too right, Pete. And I'll tell you something for nothing.
Pete: What's that then, Dud?
Dud: Until those Bullingdon boys produce a list of spending efficiencies
of the sort that will preserve Britain's triple-A credit rating, rather than the paltry £7 billion cuts that Osborne came up with at the last conference ...
Pete: Only £7 billion! It's a bleedin' insult!
Dud: Yeah. Until they do that, I'm sticking with the Natural Law Party.
Pete: As well you should, Dud. As well you should, etc etc.
Officially, at least, the two main parties have arrived at the same analysis. In his campaign launch speech last weekend, the PM said that the coming contest was not a referendum on the past but "a big choice; a choice about who's best for Britain's future". In an article in yesterday's Times, George Osborne agreed, using slightly different language, that the election had to be more than "a referendum on the Labour Party" and must instead be "a choice between five more years of Gordon Brown, or change with David Cameron and the Conservatives".
This, it has long seemed to me, is the clearest and most obvious route to victory for the Tories, but not one they have explicitly and unambiguously embraced until now. Whenever I give a presentation on politics, I use what I call my Kent Dorfman slide. There is a scene in National Lampoon's Animal House, you may recall, when the Delta House pledge committee is considering its candidates: up comes the slide of Kent "Flounder" Dorfman's pudgy features, and the entire room erupts in horror, objects are thrown, people scream. That is pretty much the effect that Gordon Brown's picture now has on an audience.
The question the Tories should urge the voters to ask when they go into the polling booth is not "Labour or Tory?" but "Cameron or Brown?". Last week's ICM poll in The Guardian showed that the Conservatives had fallen to 37 points, only seven ahead of Labour. But when the same respondents were asked who would make the best Prime Minister, Cameron soared to 42 per cent, way ahead of Brown on 28 per cent. The lesson is that the Tories have a positive interest in running this election as a battle between two quasi-presidential candidates, rather than between two national political movements.
Some of Mr Cameron's colleagues feel he has been a bit diffident, a bit distracted in recent days. They should perhaps bear in mind that last Thursday was the first anniversary of the death of his son, Ivan – a milestone that would leave the strongest of men subdued and introspective.
What is true, as Janet Daley argues (left), is that the Tory leader has to exude a clearer urgency of mission in his speech today: the "fierce urgency of now" as Barack Obama put it on the campaign trail, echoing Martin Luther King. There is a longing for a simple, authentic statement of leadership. "We need to see 'Dave Unplugged'," as one of his advisers puts it. And how much more so in the three television debates between the party leaders.
This will be a volatile election, thrillingly so. I am not sure the public is in the mood to let anyone "seal the deal" just yet: the sky-high disgrace of the expenses scandal saw to that. This time, the electorate will make Cameron sweat until the last vote is counted: there will be no Blairesque moment of national acclamation, no long-choreographed festival on the morning after the election. In these poll figures, the punters are sending the Tory leader a clear and impatient signal. They want to see him match their fury, to be their tribune: not the smooth spokesman of an alternative elite, or a scandalised economist, obsessed only with the detail of the deficit. They want a rebel leader, the head of a resistance movement. "This election is going to be a really bloody punch-up," in the words of one Shadow Cabinet member. That's for sure. Seconds out, round one.