This administration gives every sign of war weariness. It makes elementary mistakes. The attrition of ten years in office has left a legacy of inexperienced and none too competent Ministers in charge of important ministries. Labour was not over-endowed with able and efficient candidates for high office in the first place and as the efforts of now long-departed failures begin to unravel in the hands of even lesser lights, the impression of serial nincompoopery blazes out.
Labour backbenchers looked tired and dispirited and are beginning to voice their lack of morale to the press, bloggers and anyone who will listen to their whining. In such circumstances one is reminded of a technique employed on all sides in the Great War in the run up to yet another offensive.The front trenches, the communications trenches and rear echelons were all kept under bombardment with a mixture of conventional ammunition and gas. The former ensured that everyone had to keep their head down in their less than salubrious dugouts and the latter meant that they had to keep their less than efficacious gasmasks on at all times, a debilitating and tiring exercise at the best of times but when you are cold, tired and longing for home, a morale-sapping nightmare. In such circumstances something eventually has to give.
The Tories need a strategy for 2008 which will allow them to emulate these tactics and to engage the enemy on a series of different fronts and behind the lines.
Above all there will be one bill which offers the prospect of an attritional battle to be waged. This is the bill to ratify The Treaty of Lisbon. Brown has promised lashings of Parliamentary time in which the Bill may be debated. He hopes thereby to set free Tory Demons in the form of what leftist Europhiles and Labour Lickspittles are wont to call ‘the headbangers’ to provide an impression of the Europhobic obsession of the right.
This hope can be nullified if Tory Eurosceptics suppress their innermost inclinations and concentrate on the two weakest points in the Labour case for ratification: (a) their failure to honour a clear and unambiguous promise to allow the people of the United Kingdom to give or to withhold their whole-hearted consent to ratification of the Treaty; and (b) that the Treaty of Lisbon is somehow and entirely different Treaty from the Constitutional Treaty rejected by the Dutch and the French in 2005.The Tories should use the debates on the Treaty carefully. The Treaty itself cannot be amended: it can only be ratified or rejected. Thus a microscopic debate on the wording and precise meaning of this or that phrase or sentence is a pointless exercise. Rather the exercise should be wholly given over to making comparison between the present Treaty’s terms and those of the Constitutional Treaty, the aim being solely to give the lie to the ludicrous notion that this is, as Brown and Miliband would have us believe, an entirely different Treaty.
As a subtext there should also be a secondary attack on each of the so-called ‘red lines’ and a pointing up thereof as having doubtful validity and efficacy, a task which has already begun under Michael Connarty’s Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee
At each and every turn possible Labour’s craven retreat from its election promise to hold a referendum must be reiterated and emphasised. This goes hand in hand with the general proposition as to the similarity of the instant document and the rejected one.
I am no expert in Parliamentary procedure but I have no doubt that those who are can devise a strategy to turn such a debate into one of attrition, keeping the lobbies ticking over with votes of one kind and another. This in turn stretches the Labour whips who, faced with rebellion (the fact of which is certain but the size of which is not), will have constantly to be on the qui vive for an unexpected disaster.As this particular unit is commanded by the smug but useless passed-over Major Geoff ‘Buffhoon’ Hoon, the chances of a slip up or two here and there are good. But the constant whipping of an already demoralised party will in turn further tire and demoralise a party that is staring defeat in the eyes.
That said it is important to stress that would be wrong to treat Europe and the Lisbon Treaty as the centrepiece of Conservative effort. It should merely be treated as the meat grinder into which Labour is forced, like the titanic struggles of Verdun in 1916, to pour in more and more resources for no real gain: if they pass the bill in the Commons, then they have made no real progress: instead they will have passed a bill to ratify a Treaty that the British people do not want, on which their moral position has sunk beneath the mud and which at every turn is doing them palpable harm.And that only gets them to the House of Lords where it all begins again and where other possibilities for defeat and humiliation beckon, some of which promise possible defeat on the issue of a referendum and others which might force Labour into drastic measures. One might be, picking up on William Hague’s theme of the illegitimacy of this Bill, to force the Government to get its Bill through only by means of the Parliament Acts 1911 & 1949: the House of Lords would be perfectly within its rights to reject the Bill unless it contains a provision for holding a referendum, given that (a) that was the position of the three main parties in Parliament on their respective manifestoes; and (b) that those three parties were elected to 610 out of 646 seats by 89.7% of the electorate.
This then opens the scope for a different kind of war on other fronts which the Tories can use as centrepiece showcases to present their credentials as a government-in-waiting: the economy, health, education, policing, sleaze, immigration, defence, ministerial competence and the character and abilities of the Prime Minister himself.
Each week is likely to throw up some new piece of incompetence or a new example of the serious character flaws of Gordon Brown. Upon this the Tories can throw themselves for a short time in the manner of a guerrilla raid into which the Labour enemy is forced significantly to commit resources fighting the fires thus created. As soon as they are committed the raiders can then be switched to some new topic where this government of nincompoops has fouled up once more. This too will contribute to the wearing down attritional destruction of an already tired government and at each turn it will be slower and slower to react. And when it does react, the chances are that it will react badly.
Brown will try to re-establish himself in the New Year. It is important that the Tories have a strategy in place for never allowing him ever again holding the initiative. Care being taken never to allow the attack to engender sympathy for the underdog (the Flashman syndrome), he must at all times be kept on the defensive, never to be allowed to set the agenda or to have a chance to develop any given initiative. If he is constantly engaged in fighting fires, he can never rebuild or repair. Eventually he too will break.Who knows? There may even come a moment, much as there did in November 1918 when General Wilhelm Groener told Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had announced his intention to march at the head of his army back to Berlin and there to put down the incipient revolution that seemed to about to break out, that ‘the army no longer stands behind Your Majesty’, whereupon the Kaiser went out and bought himself a one-way train ticket to The Netherlands and twenty-three years of exile.
This may all be a matter of teaching grannies to suck eggs, I know not, but it seems to me to be how best to utilise the field of battle which now presents itself. Above all, thought, it will enable the Tories to exert self-discipline in the way in which Labour did in the period 1994-1997, to present a united front and to allow themselves to look fit to take over in the eyes of the electorate.
The election of 2009 or 2010 is now for the Tories to lose. They have the initiative at the moment and, if they fight with skill and determination they can drive this odious and rotten-to-the-core government from the field.
Lastly, the twice-disgraced Peter Mandelson who, despite being a rotten sleazebag, managed to get himself a nice little earner in Brussels, announced on the Daily Politics on BBC that the Treaty of Lisbon is “a helpful housekeeping measure”.
From an ivory tower on the Planet Zog, I suppose it would look like that.