Smell the Glove

John Lanchester · Ashcroft's Diagnosis

Michael Ashcroft’s power in the Tory party comes from two things: the fact that he was giving them money back when no one else would; and the fact that, in the aftermath of their 2005 defeat, he commissioned a study of the reasons for it. He wrote up the analysis and published it under the title Smell the Coffee. This report was to become, in effect, the intellectual underpinning of the party’s turn to the Cameronistas.

Smell the Glove, sorry, Smell the Coffee, comes to a memorably blunt conclusion: ‘The problem was not that millions of people in Britain thought the Conservative Party wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them; the problem was that they were right.’ Even a non-Tory would agree with that.

That’s where the Cameron project began. It’s entire basis is to make the Tories seem like a party which resembles and understands modern Britain. So what’s going on? Yesterday came the news that petrol prices had hit their highest level ever, £1.20 a litre. Since Brown was pinning a significant amount of his hopes for the recovery on lower petrol prices, this should be a disaster for Labour. (‘The one bright spot on the horizon in what is a very difficult picture around the world is that oil prices are coming down,’ he told GMTV 18 months ago. ‘That’s what has caused the hit on people's standard of living more than anything else.’) Also, there is usually a direct negative correlation between petrol prices and the government’s popularity – prices go up, the polls go down.

So this adds up as follows:

  • 82 per cent of the British people agree with the proposition that ‘it’s time for a change’
  • Gordon Brown is personally unpopular, not least because we didn’t elect him in the first place
  • the government took us into the most unpopular military adventure since Suez
  • the government presided over the sharpest and longest economic contraction since the Great Depression
  • the incumbent chancellor has said that the coming cuts will be ‘deeper and tougher’ than those administered by Mrs Thatcher
  • petrol prices are at an all-time high
  • and here please feel free to add whatever are your own top reasons for being furious with Labour. You may write on both sides of the paper.

The only obvious way in which the circumstances could more favour the Tories would be if several members of the Cabinet were arrested for running a paedophile ring. Since that is unlikely to happen, the Tories simply won’t ever get better electoral weather than this. This election shouldn’t be anywhere near close. And yet the most recent polls have the Tories heading for either a hung Parliament or a tiny majority. This must, surely, mean that the diagnosis Ashcroft gave in 2005 is still true? There’s a huge residual dislike and distrust of the Tories. That fundamental part of the rebranding, repackaging, Cameronising project has failed.


  • 9 April 2010 at 1:16pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Clutching at straws is the term, I think. What makes you think that a Tory government would be worse than a ehem, 'Labour' government under Brown or whoever. Surely the Tories have more pull with the big concerns and bankers and might get the country#s finances on an even keel?

  • 9 April 2010 at 3:00pm
    pinhut says:
    In 1997, Labour won a landslide against a Tory party that was seen as a spent force. What nobody expected was for the same discredited ideas of Thatcherism to then be served up on steroids for another 13 years. Some opportunists have even lined up to denounce Labour as 'the final proof that socialism has failed' - as if!

    Now we have Cameron, who is on the record as saying he is "Blair's heir" and a shadow Chancellor who has said he is 'a Blairite'. Are we about to see the public firmly reject New Labour, only to once again be given a continuation of the same failed policies, perhaps served up in an even purer form? (think Blairism on Miaow-Miaow). It would appear so.

    If this does come to pass, it will mean there has effectively been no change of direction of failed policies (save for some deviation on the public services, which has become, effectively, the only battleground between the parties) across numerous election cycles stretching back to Thatcher. I really see this next government as being decisive in determining the fate of what little public faith remains in the two main parties.

  • 9 April 2010 at 4:41pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    My predictions are always wrong, so I'll wait a few weeks before ruining Labour's chances. It's interesting to see that in Germany and in France, public interest in going to vote is declining. Granted, in France the elections were sabotaged by Sarkosy before they were held, but in Germany, participation has fallen over the past two elections from 79% in 2005, to 71% in 2009, with the major parties losing out on their shares of the total. The S.P.D. vote has fallen by 50% since the heady days of Schroeder and Fischer staying out of Iraq and nobody thinks that there will be a revival for a couple of terms. The Labour Party needs a few years in the cooler to give them time to think through what they want to campaign for.

    • 10 April 2010 at 9:57am
      Mike Killingworth says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I'm sure they do. Actually, I would hope that opposition would kill them off altogether, were it not for the fact that most of the space they would vacate would be occupied, not by a loose coalition of of TU-based activists and left environmentalists, but by a populist politics of race.

  • 10 April 2010 at 2:15am
    bilejones says:
    You have obviously missed the rather obvious point.

    People are finally, after God knows how many decades, facing the reality that the problem is that the main function of Government is the looting of the governed.
    No looter is acceptable.

    One wonders if the Thai model- relatively peaceful,
    or the more violent models will prevail: would British troops shoot Britons on the streets in defense of the overlords?

  • 10 April 2010 at 11:18am
    dickon_edwards says:
    I'm rather pleased that the LRB allows 'Smell The Glove' as a reference!

  • 2 May 2010 at 7:18am
    marshmallow says:
    In Marketing-speak this is called 'brand taint' = the idea that however rational a purchase might appear (price, quality etc), some consumers will simply not want to be associated with the brand. It works against Marks and Spencer's clothing. I think the Tories suffered from this for ages, but Cameron has done alot to disinfect the brand. I know loads of passionate Blairites who are now going to vote Tory

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