"I think people know by now that I want us to stand up for the poorest in Britain and to show that fiscal responsibility can go hand in hand with a social conscience."
David Cameron addressed the Tories’ spring forum yesterday and assured his audience that although Conservatives are ready to usher in an ‘age of austerity’, the commitments which he has made to prioritise social justice will nevertheless be upheld. With a general election imminent, it is his party’s central task to ensure voters remain convinced that efforts to constrain public debt will not entail compromising Cameron’s communitarian vision for Britain.
The Conservative leader has consistently argued that combating society’s dysfunction is an effective means by which to ease the burden on the public purse. Far from hampering the imperative to spend money efficiently, tackling social problems is a prerequisite for renewed prosperity. Cameron must repeatedly insist upon the compatibility of these two agendas, right up to (and during) the next general election. And he should continue to stress the emphasis which his party puts on social policy, remaining careful not to allow the inevitable economic debate to obscure important Tory undertakings.
When Alistair Darling announced a 50p tax bracket for those earning over £150,000 it was a measure aimed primarily at undermining the Conservative message on society. Had the party defended too robustly the tax status of salaries which are beyond the wildest dreams of most voters, it would undoubtedly have estranged a substantial section of the electorate. The Tories would have been seen to prioritise the interests of a wealthy elite, at the expense of the poorest people, whom Cameron insists he will stand up for.
Despite the theses advanced by Boris Johnson and others, who argue that the party should undertake to scrap 50p tax at the earliest opportunity, perceptions matter in this instance, even if they are based on shaky premises. Although the Conservative lead now appears unassailable, any temporary resurgence which Labour has from time to time mustered has coincided with doubts about the Tories’ centrist credentials. The party simply cannot afford too dramatic a rightward swing.
Martin Kettle, commenting on Cameron’s speech, observes that the economic crisis has ensured, “politics is now about competing visions of strategies for limited resources”. It will be by assessing the respective attractions of these competing strategies, as well as the parties’ realistic prospects of instigating them, that the electorate will make its choice next May.
The Conservatives chosen strategy remains rather abstract, but, particularly in the short term, that is not a significant concern. There is adequate scope to outline differences in approach which would distinguish a Cameron administration from Brown’s government. The Tory leader, for example, chose the £12 billion NHS computer system to illustrate that his party’s distrust of centralisation would naturally lead to more cost effective government.
Several commentators have detected similarities between the text Cameron delivered yesterday and the thinking of New Labour under Tony Blair. Cranmer has posted on the topic with customary exuberance. However, an essential difference was alluded to in the speech itself. Whereas every initiative by Blairites to furnish institutions with more freedom, whether it involved schools, hospitals or social security organs, was hampered and emasculated by Gordon Brown and his acolytes, David Cameron will have no equivalent ideological battles to fight. His party will decentralise by conviction.
“We'll invite social enterprises, private companies and community organisations to help run our public services not in a limited, half-hearted way, like Labour have, but with passion and enthusiasm, because we really believe in it.”
The difficult decisions which Conservatives will be faced with as regards the public finances will be complemented, rather than obstructed, by the looser structure of services which Cameron envisages. Those are the ‘conservative means’ by which Cameron hopes to achieve ‘progressive aims’. It is important that the public remains fully appraised of the aims as well as the means.