During election campaigns, political parties don’t just seek to define themselves against each other, they also seek to define themselves against the public’s expectations of what they are.
Tony Blair was the past master of this, winning three elections in a row for Labour by donning the Tories’ erstwhile mantle as the party of aspiration and also, until it blew up in his successor’s face in 2008, of economic competence.
In the days when he saw himself as the “heir to Blair,” David Cameron tried the same trick, seeking to rid himself of his party’s “nasty” tag by declaring he would lead the “greenest” government in history and imploring voters to “let sunshine win the day.”
Mr Cameron’s Tory “modernisation” project had seemed almost as moribund as Mr Blair’s New Labour, but the party’s manifesto launch this week saw it suddenly spring to life again as the Prime Minister sought to project that image of sunny optimism that marked his early years as Tory leader.
In an apparent realisation that the Tories’ initial campaign pitch had been too narrowly focused on the ‘long-term economic plan,’ Mr Cameron insisted he “didn’t come into politics to be some high-powered accountant.”
“The greatest sunshine that there can possibly be is for more people to find work, for more people to have more of their own money to spend as they choose, for more people to be able to own their own home, for more people to have that dignity and security in retirement,” he said.
Tackling head-on the widespread perception of the Tories as the party of the rich, he sought to persuade us that they are, in fact,the party of “working people.”
Even more counter-intuitively, the Tories also appear to have discovered a hitherto unknown propensity for unfunded spending commitments, pledging to splurge an extra £8bn on the NHS and £5bn on housing without giving the slightest idea of where the money is coming from.
This was, of course, what Tory governments of old used to attack Labour oppositions for – but the current Labour opposition is not falling into that trap.
For it too spent the week trying to challenge perceptions of what it is all about, with a core manifesto pledge to reduce the deficit year on year and ‘balance the books’ by the end of the Parliament. In a week which saw the two main parties eagerly attempting to steal each other’s clothes, only the Greens played true to form with a manifesto notable only for its general bonkersness.
Perhaps the highlight was the pledge to ban the caging of rabbits and chickens, which would be a surefire election winner if only foxes had the vote.
The Greens’ big campaign pitch in the North East - their opposition to dualling the A1 – seemed equally unlikely to garner support, even if it did manage to get them on the front page of The Journal.
Maybe they had been watching that episode of the Likely Lads when Bob and Terry attempt to cycle from Newcastle to Berwick, but then again, maybe not.
Of more import to the region were the respective parties’ pledges on devolution, with the Tories appearing to make clear that any transfer of powers will indeed be conditional on the creation of an elected mayoralty on the Greater Manchester model.
This seems unlikely to win them many votes in a region which sees itself as very much more than Greater Newcastle.
In terms of the bigger picture, the manifesto launches appear to have changed little. The Tories produced a couple of “rabbits” by pledging to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m and extend right-to-buy to housing association properties.
Briefly these looked like potential game changers, as the Tories raced into a six-point lead over Labour in one poll.
But by the end of the week, they were deadlocked again and Nicola Sturgeon was able to spend Thursday night’s BBC debate taunting Ed Miliband over whether he would he would do a deal with the SNP or allow Mr Cameron to stay in power.
The Labour leader managed to dodge the question for now, but it will doubtless return to haunt him - and in next week’s column, I will attempt to provide a possible answer.