The conduct of campaigns was transformed but, even more importantly, the way in which modern leaders thought about politics was altered, for the worse. In the Clinton campaign we saw the early efforts at what later became known as "triangulation", the process by which a leader attempts to transcend left/right terminology and sit above ideology or even ideas. The high-spending, high-taxing Left's weaknesses on the economy could be neutralised by the execution of an outflanking manoeuvre. To this end, New Labour borrowed the economic rhetoric of its opponents claiming that it would be more prudent than the Conservatives. Once in power, and wanting to increase spending on public services, it found that it had to increase taxes by stealth to pay for it. When spending really took off, and Labour was unwilling to be honest about the true scale of tax rises required to cover the bill, deficits were expanded at the top of an unsustainable credit-driven boom.
Thus the gap between rhetoric and reality was widened to the point that the very bond of trust that "prudent" New Labour had been founded to reestablish with the electorate was eventually destroyed.
But that took a very long time to happen. Partly, this was due to the virtual nervous breakdown that the Conservative family decided to have in the interim in response to the rise of New Labour. Blair seemed to have suspended or ended normal politics. In the US, the Right regrouped and George W. Bush won two elections. In Britain, New Labour's earliest incarnation was so electorally successful that it obliterated the opposition. In the US system there are checks and balances, with strong states and a need for a president to work with a legislature in which his party may not have a majority. Executive power is deliberately constrained.
In a parliamentary system there are far fewer limitations, and the scale of their 1997 election victory went to the heads of the main characters in New Labour. Brown claimed to have ended the economic cycle by "abolishing boom and bust". The spin turned out to be hubristic hokum when reality intervened and there was the biggest bust since the 1930s. Blair, at his height, messianically described New Labour as "the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole", a sub-Marxist statement that would have been comical if it had not been so sinister.
These dizzying developments all but destroyed the confidence of the Conservatives; John Major's party imploded and successive leaders of the opposition went down to defeat. The young band of Tory modernisers who eventually took control of a traumatised Conservative Party argued that they would have to replicate rather than renounce the Blair model. Many in that group not only respected the leader of New Labour, they actively admired or even idolised him as "the Master" who had transcended ideology and mastered the media.
In this way the early Cameroons emphasised subjects such as the environment to burnish their leader's liberal credentials and confuse their opponents. Here was classic Clinton/Blair triangulation. Cameron aimed to avoid anything that reminded floating voters of the Tory party's past views on crime, Europe, tax or immigration. The economy was initially seen as an irrelevance: the new Tories broadly accepted the terms of the "end of boom and bust" settlement defined by Gordon Brown. They promised to "share the proceeds of growth", until — suddenly — there wasn't any. Not having crafted a coherent critique of Blair and Brown's economic analysis before the crash, they were in no position to benefit when it failed spectacularly.
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