Episode Seven: Panic the Kippers
To understand the Tories’ general election campaign, you have to grasp its central premise: that the Tory route to power lies through a collapse in the Ukip vote. If the Ukip vote stays where it is, and the SNP vote stays where it is, the popular vote is more or less a draw. Thanks to the party landscape and the geographical distribution of the vote, that puts Miliband in Downing Street. So the Tories badly need Ukip to go away.
This helps to make sense of things that would otherwise be inexplicable. Why would Cameron get out of his car at Number Ten, fresh back from his meeting with the queen, and launch straight into an attack on Miliband? For a prime minister to attack an opponent personally and at length helps make that opponent seem on the same level as the incumbent – it makes him look more credible as a possible prime minister. And that’s the point. The idea was to get Kippers imagining Ed in front of that very same Downing Street backdrop, launching a new initiative to open the country’s borders to HIV-positive transsexual terrorist Roma benefit scroungers. This might have had the side effect of making Ed a more imaginable prime minister for some centrist voters – I think it probably did, a little bit – but those aren’t the voters the Tories are after. They want the Kippers to think that a vote for Nigel is a vote for Ed, and that Ed is their worst nightmare.
The best guide to negative campaigning was given in Tony Blair’s memoirs, where he said that tone should be ‘never overly harsh, apparently low-key’. He tried to imagine the kind of criticism that would resonate with a legal colleague: ‘the aim was to get a non-politician nodding.’ The Tory attacks on Miliband are nothing like that. They alternate between trying to make him seem weak, flaky, a puppet of the unions, a milquetoast Hampstead bien-pensant; or ruthlessly fratricidal and obsessed with winning at all costs (with a new sideline in the Daily Mail concerning Ed Miliband, Irresistible Sex Machine). This doesn’t make sense as a portrait, and it doesn’t make anyone nod with agreement. It isn't supposed to. It’s only meant to panic the Kippers.
The Ukip-first strategy helps explain the otherwise bizarre policy on inheritance tax. In autumn 2007, when it looked as if Gordon Brown might be about to call a snap election, George Osborne announced that the Tories would raise the threshold at which estates became liable for inheritance tax to £1,000,000. This helped cause a jump in the polls, which in turn scared Brown off calling the election. That policy, retrograde in most respects, at least had the virtue of clarity: no inheritance tax below £1,000,000. But that wouldn’t be an option any longer for the Tories, who can’t afford to announce any more policies which so straightforwardly benefit the rich. The 2015 policy is much more complicated than the 2007 version: no IHT on 'family homes' below £1,000,000 with IHT kicking in at a rate of 50p in the pound above £2,000,000 so that estates worth £2,350,000 or more pay the same tax as they do now. Eh? What? It’s incoherent, and weirdly specific: a tax cut for people whose primary residence is worth more than £650,000 (the current threshold when spouses pass on their IHT exemption to each other) but whose total estates are less than £2,350,000. Who might they be? Older homeowners in the South-East, for the most part.
The clue about the intended beneficiaries can be found in Ukip policy. Ukip want to abolish inheritance tax altogether. They think that resonates with their voters. The Tory policy is to abolish the kinds of inheritance tax that Ukip voters might be worried about paying, while not adding any further to their own politically toxic reputation for putting the rich first. The resulting policy proposal on IHT is one hell of a contortion. As with contortionism in real life, most people’s deepest impulse is to look away. It’s fine to do that. This spectacle is not intended for you.