David Cameron

At sporting events in the US, the organisers sometimes set up a fun thing called a T-shirt cannon. This is what it sounds like: a cannon, or rather a bazooka, which emits a thud and sends a T-shirt across the arena where it softly thwacks into one of the punters. Who doesn’t want to be hit in the face by a free T-shirt?

The T-shirt cannon was brought to mind by the latest round of policy announcements from the Tories. The most recent of these came yesterday: a plan to sell off £4 billion of shares from Lloyds to members of the general public. Lloyds is already 22 per cent owned by the UK public; the sell-off would transfer ownership from everybody to the specific subset of the population who buy the shares at a 5 per cent discount from its current market price. This is a transfer of ownership from the state to individuals, straight out of Margaret Thatcher’s playbook and the British Gas privatisation. The sell-off of Housing Association stock to current tenants is a very similar move from the same political handbook. This is the T-shirt cannon: a policy that brings no general benefit to the taxpayer but instead is aimed at delivering largesse to a specific chunk of the electorate. Another policy to shoot out of the cannon was the raising of the inheritance tax threshold.

So there are now three components to the Tory ‘offer’ (as sales and marketing men call it).

1. Long-term economic plan.
2. It’s either Dave or Ed, and it must be Dave because Ed is rubbish and will deliver England to the SNP.
3. T-shirt cannon.

The Tories had hoped that numbers 1 and 2 would be enough, as they were in the (to them) comparable circumstances of 1992. The problem here is that 3 contradicts 1 – you can’t be both the party of austerity and the party of freebies. The calculation must be that it doesn’t matter, and that the voters won over by the giveaways won’t detract from the core voters who are already onside with 1 and 2.

This is dispiriting in and of itself. But the other thing that happened yesterday is that news came of 700 migrants dying in the latest Mediterranean refugee disaster.

There are no easy solutions to the refugee crisis facing Europe, and no cheap solutions, and certainly no populist solutions, and it may be that there’s nothing one could describe as a ‘solution’. But there are times when we need someone in a position of power to come up with some language that feels adequate to the moment. We get that we aren’t living in Harry Potter World: our leaders can’t just say ‘Refugee Crisis, Disappeario!’ and make everything better. And yet, sometimes, we need to hear something that seems as if it responds to the scale of the occasion. We stand witness to a once-in-a-generation humanitarian disaster in the Mediterranean, and our leaders have nothing to say and no policies to offer, beyond a generalised antipathy to immigration. What they have instead is a T-shirt cannon buying off the electorate, one interest group at a time. I don’t remember a time when our politicians seemed so small.