It is commonly asserted that the Conservatives have yet to ‘seal the deal’ with the British public, despite the party’s consistent poll leads. There is anxiety in the country, it is argued, that austerity measures aimed at getting the economy back on track, will be applied with excessive zealotry by the Tories.
The Conservative lead has looked most surmountable when David Cameron’s message has steered away from centrist, bridge-building rhetoric, designed to portray the party as ‘progressive’.
The challenge for the Tories is to maintain a softer, communitarian image, whilst emphasising the party’s credentials as an economic custodian. And, in addition, there are difficulties with a Conservative base, which is often less moderate than its leadership. A tax cutting, service slashing programme might not be popular in the country at large, but it would receive rabid support at grassroots.
Yesterday, speaking on behalf of those grassroots, the Telegraph leader urged ‘boldness’ from David Cameron. It meant that he should drop his communitarian, big society rhetoric in order to concentrate on lowering taxes and ’streamlining’ government.
Fortunately the Conservative leader has resisted the paper’s counsel. Instead he is prepared to fight a campaign pledging to protect investment in the NHS and maintain front line services. Shadow business secretary, Ken Clarke, has refused to rule out a temporary increase in VAT, under the Tories.
Of course the state has become over-large, over-centralised, over-mighty under the Labour government. The Conservative party will address these problems. It will trim back, de-centralise, recalibrate the balance between state and society.
And the economic deficit must be addressed, which will require cuts.
But to successfully tackle the debt the government must prioritise sound public finances. That means maintaining taxes, or even considering short term rises, for the time being.
A programme which simultaneously applies pain to the public sector and alleviates the tax burden on the most wealthy will, without doubt, alienate the greater part of the British people. It will destabilise the society which Cameron wishes to build up.
The idea that progressive ends can best be achieved by conservative means remains central to the modern Conservative project. The aim of the good society should not be subservient to any economic ideology.
That means Ken Clarke offers a wiser path than the Daily Telegraph to number 10, for David Cameron.