How the Tories could unseat the prudent PM at polling time
There are two broad interpretations of the current state of politics.
The first is that Gordon Brown has merely regained his core vote: the sort of people who would have voted Labour in 1987 or 1992. The Prime Minister has benefited from the grandstanding opportunities created by the current crisis. But as the bad news seeps into the economy, like cold on a wretched winter day, the resentments will grow. The most potent slogan in current British politics is “time for a change”. When the economy turns sour, it is hard for oppositions to lose elections. In 1992, Neil Kinnock broke that precedent. David Cameron is no Neil Kinnock.
The second, more favourable to Mr Brown, is that he could still exploit the banking collapse to achieve a sustained recovery. In the mid-1990s, a new expression crept into Russian politics: stabilnost. That is the basis of Vladimir Putin's enduring popularity. He is the guarantor of stability.
For Putin, read Brown? Young Mr Cameron is good at hope and change. The latter occasionally irritates some of his old-fashioned supporters, who rather agree with Lord Palmerston: “Change, change, change — aren't things bad enough already?” At the moment, however, it is not only palaeolithic Tories who are sceptical about hope and afraid of change. Gordon Brown may benefit from projecting himself as a hard man for hard times.
His has certainly benefited from the opening skirmishes, which is why the Tories' poll lead has been cut. In crises, prime ministers command the prime spot on the news, and much of the Tories' meagre ration of publicity was devoted to the Corfu boating song. But we are moving from the intensive care stage of the banking implosion to the less glamorous wards for chronic ailments. That will enable the Tories to counter-attack, and the latest phase started on Friday, with a speech by George Osborne.
Mr Osborne was determined to assail Gordon Brown's claims to be the master of stability. The Shadow Chancellor committed himself to fiscal rectitude, while blaming Labour for failing to fix the roof when the sun was shining. The tone was sombre and thoughtful: so far, so good. But there are some Tories who believe that Mr Osborne could be bolder, and that he ought to start by clearing some undergrowth.
Early in his leadership, David Cameron said that for at least their first two years, the Tories would adhere to Labour's public spending plans. A Cameron government would aim to share the proceeds of growth between the tax-payer and the public services. This was a key part of Mr Cameron's principal strategy: to rehabilitate his party with those who believe in public services and to destroy the caricature of Tories as the uncaring rich who want to slash services in order to fund tax-cuts.
There is nothing wrong with sharing the proceeds of growth. In practice, it is what Mrs Thatcher did during most of her Premiership. But what happens if there is no growth to share? Why should spending plans drawn up when the sun was shining be adhered to when there is an urgent need to fix the roof?
It would be possible for Messrs Cameron and Osborne to modify their rhetoric, as follows: “We are committed to world-class standards in health and education. We want our soldiers and policemen to have the numbers and equipment that they need, while pensioners enjoy a dignified old age. We will never economise on the treatment of the sick, on our children's future, or on our soldiers' lives. But not everything the Government spends is vitally important. When most households are making economies, why should the Government be exempt? If we have to mend the holes in the roof, it may be that some repainting plans will have to be postponed.”
The Tories could also talk more about waste. It is impossible to open a newspaper without coming across instances of contemptuous extravagance by government bodies or local authorities. One council uses anti-terrorism powers to sniff out the unlicenced sale of pizzas. Another spends tens of thousands in legal fees to silence a parrot.
These individual maladministrations only consume tiny sums, but they are symptomatic of an attitude which is far too widespread in the public services. Spending public money ought to be a sacred trust, not a casual habit. If the Tories made that point, it is hard to know who would disagree.
Even so, some of Mr Cameron's senior advisers are still reluctant to depart from the present line on public spending. They are scarred by the last three elections. In each one, the Tories promised to protect and improve the public services. The only cuts would be cuts in waste. Each time, however, Labour claimed that the Tories could not be trusted. The team around David Cameron do not want to go through that again. The caution is excessive but understandable.
Caution leads on to tax. After recent events, the Tories are less inclined than ever to promise tax cuts. But what if Gordon Brown were to suggest a tax cut in his pre-Budget review: restoring the 10p rate, perhaps. Could a Tory opposition really oppose a Labour tax cut?
It would be possible, but only in a wider context. Well in advance, the Tories should argue that it would be wrong to increase borrowing to finance tax cuts. The priority must be lower interest rates, to bring help to the business sector, and to lay the foundations of recovery.
The budget deficit is bound to rise to hideous heights as it is, because of collapsing revenues and increased social security costs. It would be the height of folly to add to this by an electoral bribe. If the Government could finance a small tax cut for the poorest people by demonstrable savings, that might be acceptable — but not by borrowing.
The Tories ought to seize the fiscal ground in advance, and not be seen to improvise in response to Gordon Brown's cunning. The voters will be asking themselves who has the most convincing solutions. The election hangs on their answer.