Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Can the Tories get their mojo back before the general election?

Last night’s ‘chancellors’ debate’ witnessed some uncomfortable moments for George Osborne. The Conservatives will be relieved to get his tussle with Alistair Darling and Vince Cable over, so early in the election campaign. Channel 4’s programme acted as a starting pistol for the parties’ television battle, but the Tories hope deft performances from David Cameron will give them the edge in three set-piece leaders debates, which form the centre-piece to TV poll coverage.

Although Osborne made a brave attempt at ’triangulating’ his pitch to both traditional Conservative voters and the centre ground, the shadow chancellor struggled to defend his party’s latest pledge on National Insurance. Whereas, just a year ago, the Tory message was confident and it was conservative politics which fizzed with intellectual energy, the imminent election, and narrowing poll leads, have caused the party and its leader to look less sure-footed.

Despite the ’gravitational pull’ of the Thatcherite right, Cameron famously insisted that his party were ‘never going back’. The Tory leader is at his best emphasising elements of modern conservatism. The party’s recovery of its ’one nation’ tradition, commitment to a society at ease with itself, an innate distaste for ideology and dedication to maintaining the NHS.

Cameron previously critiqued his predecessor’s espousal of ’the politics of “and”’ astutely. He was not unsympathetic to Michael Howard’s notion that tax cuts and a radically smaller public sector could exist alongside the compassionate society. But he correctly insisted that voters did not buy the idea that front line services could be maintained while, simultaneously, substantially lower taxes were delivered.

Clearly the Conservatives have not ditched their appeal to the centre-ground. But there needs to be recognition that their response to the economic crisis has made it less convincing. Obsorne is right to insist that cutting 50% tax cannot be a priority, but he should also put Inheritance Tax in the same category. And although there is a strong argument that reversing the increase in NIC will benefit the economy, the Tories should have costed the measure much more persuasively.

Phillip Blond is one commentator who has interpreted Conservatives’ emphasis on the deficit as a lurch to the right. He is absolutely correct when he insists that the Tories must concentrate on reaching out beyond their core support, in order to achieve the necessary result. But the public finances are THE crucial issue at this election and Cameron and Osborne cannot ignore them, however uncomfortable the message.

The Conservatives have, thus far, attempted to portray themselves as responsible custodians of the economy and the public sector. Few voters doubt that there will be spending cuts, whichever party is returned to government, but the majority also want services protected. That is the constituency David Cameron and George Osborne have to convince, if the Conservatives are to secure a working majority.


JeffPeel said...

I must say I disagree with your analysis. The elemental problem with the Conservative position is sheer lack of understanding. There are no statesmen or women on the front bench and the constant 'right-on' policy making - inspired by populism, is sickening. There is no substance or emotion left in the Party leadership. The Party is lurching all over the place - because it has very, very little talent. What rich talent there is has been pushed to the side-lines. The Party is beginning to look an awful lot like New Labour.

The Party needs to start making policy based on the country's need rather than popular want. I'm just not sure that it is able to do so. There just isn't much in the way of vision or cutting edge thinking left. It's merely bland. And bland in policics really isn't a good thing. Ideology would be better. Ideologues make good statesmen.


Gaw said...

I don't think Osborne is an effective and credible advocate. For instance, his defence of the NI tax cut was very weak (where was the dismissal of a 'tax on jobs' at a time of high unemployment?)

Your analysis is the best I've read as most seem to think Osborne did well in securing a draw. In a debate concerned with the economic policy of the most disastrous government in a generation a draw is a pitiful result for the Opposition.

Ulster Liberal said...

JeffPeel, totally agree.
Cameron really needs to answer why, having written Michael Howard's hard right manifesto, he has adopted outright Marxist/Lenninist social and moral policies. He also needs to explain why, having taken on the Tory leadership promising to decentralise power, he has taken a frankly, fascist, approach to the selection of Tory candidates.
I think the answer is, as the man who gave him his first political job, Robin Harris, said, he is an 'out-and-out opportunist.'

As for Osbourne, he is viewed as an utter lightweight in the City and I think has a kind of , what Toby Young called, a 'negative charisma.'

Chekov said...

Leaving aside the downright silly language, 'Marxism / Leninism / fascist' ffs, the reason that he's taken Tory selection policy under his wing is to make the party electable.

For someone who persistently preaches about the UUP's failings, Jeff, you seem to have forgotten that the Conservatives were going nowhere until Cameron began to modernise.

Gaw said...

Yes, I've always pigeonholed Cameron as a Marxist-Leninist-Fascist-opportunist. But is this just a front?

Ulster Liberal said...

You're accusing me of using silly language yet its you who is coming out with all the political class, dishonest jargon of the day: 'modernise,' 'making them electable,' 'appealing to the centre ground' etc.
These phrases are essentialy euphemisms for shamefully lauching a fire sale on all traditional Tory policies in order to attract a few thousand votes from self-loathing Guardian readers from suburban London.
Strip away the clothes from the Emperor and you have the embodiment of everything that's so shallow, vacuous and manipulatively populist about modern day British politics. Strip away the clothes and you have the ultimate career politican. It is an ugly sight- as the electorate can see all too well currently.