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.