At the Tory Conference

Ross McKibbin

The most enthusiastic moment came when David Cameron promised to end poverty and pronounced the Tories the real party of the poor. The Conservatives have, of course, always thought themselves the real party of the poor but this time the claim was accompanied by some genuine rhetoric about inequality which they may come to regret. The party, to judge by what was said in the hall, has changed; and for the better. But it hasn’t changed enough, and the danger is that where there used to be nastiness there will now be confusion.

The effect of three successive electoral defeats, and a recognition that the electorate isn’t much interested in the things Tories normally support, can be seen in what it said it would not undo: the minimum wage and the 50 per cent top marginal tax rate stay. The NHS, Cameron has conceded, is untouchable in any serious way, and if there are to be significant cuts in education, or indeed in social expenditure more broadly, he won’t admit to it or reveal what they might be. It also appears that it is hands off New Labour’s life-style ‘progressivism’. Civil partnerships are accepted. There is no talk of a rewritten Clause 28 and the leadership would clearly be very unhappy with a Thatcherite social authoritarianism. More generally, the spirit of Mrs Thatcher was absent, indeed there seemed to be a strong desire, from either belief or prudence, to cast a veil over her and her achievements. Even on Europe, where the party is quite unreconstructed, the leadership stuck absolutely to the script: as long as the Lisbon Treaty remains unratified there will be a referendum. But what if it were ratified before the election? Cameron made it as clear as he could that in that case there would be no referendum; only an attempt to ‘renegotiate the terms’ – the last refuge of all British governments in their relations with the EU.

While everyone insisted there would be urgent change, the policies that were proposed are largely those of the present government – only rather more so. There was the same dreary catalogue of law and order promises: more prisons, more asbos (or something like them), more discipline, more wars on drugs. And the same moth-eaten rhetoric of ‘choice’: further choice in every direction except, it seems, in the NHS, where some lessons have been learned. But especially choice in education. Michael Gove was almost lightheaded at the possibilities, but these effusions are only an extension of the educational policies that New Labour consistently pursued until Ed Balls slowed things down a little. The government is in no real position to criticise the Conservatives on this or any other matter of ‘choice’.

It is at this point that things become difficult for the Tories. They have adopted a rhetoric of fairness that broadly represents the consensus within the country’s political elite. But at the conference they portrayed themselves as the party that will pay off New Labour’s debt, and though Cameron insisted the consequent austerity would be ‘fair’, it is clear it will not be, and he slid away from any of the obvious questions put to him. Why should public employees pay for the mistakes of the bankers? Has any Tory MP tried to live on £18,001 a year – the point at which the public-sector wage freeze would operate? What about death duties on expensive houses? How can the disabled be coaxed into work if the government’s fiscal policies are likely to increase unemployment? On all these he was feeble or evasive.

We don’t know exactly why the Tories decided to put so much electoral weight on the repayment of the debt. By historic standards, or those of other G20 countries, the debt is not huge. Although George Osborne assured us that the ratings agencies were muttering about Britain’s triple A status, there is no sign yet that Britain cannot service the debt, which will in any case fall as the economy recovers. And Cameron was most unconvincing in his response to the argument that rapid cuts in public expenditure would simply postpone economic recovery (something he must surely know). The Conservatives may have become increasingly hostile to the monetary policies of the Bank of England, but they supported the rescue of the banks last year – they could do nothing else, as Cameron freely acknowledges – and the rescue constitutes much of the debt.

There are probably two reasons Cameron and Osborne decided that the debt was the card to play. The first is that all three parties are debt repayers, however much they differ as to timing. Nick Clegg, in a truly bad address, actually promised ‘savage’ cuts: something not even Cameron was up to. And besides, whatever recent behaviour suggests, there is a widespread feeling in the country that debt is a bad thing and sooner or later has to be paid off. If they calculated that they would lose nothing by going for the debt the Tories probably calculated rightly.

Second, the debt is also a way of entrenching Cameron among those in the party who have never been happy with his leadership. Until the financial crisis Cameron’s policies were based on the same assumptions as Brown’s, and while he could criticise New Labour policies on the margin – red tape, intrusive state, Whitehall bureaucracy etc – he couldn’t criticise their substance. Many of the more gut-instinct Tories were unhappy with this and could not be bought off simply by attacks on ‘Europe’. Then the crisis supervened and pulled the ground from beneath Cameron’s feet. Neither he nor Osborne responded well. To give central importance to the repayment of ‘New Labour’s debt’ both aligns Cameron with that wing of the party which was never keen on a Tory version of New Labour and rescues a political reputation damaged by the crisis. As a strategy it also serves to distinguish the party from Labour and releases it from the responsibility it undoubtedly shares for the banking debacle. As a short-term or rhetorical solution to the party’s electoral problems this will probably work – indeed in the short term it is probably unnecessary given New Labour’s unpopularity – but in the longer term it can only cause trouble. If there is going to be a serious attempt to repay part of the debt in more or less one go the cuts announced by Osborne are nowhere enough. At the same time, Cameron has committed the party to significant extra social spending both because he feels it electorally essential and because he sees it as a marker of a reformed party. This circle cannot be squared.

Cameron has also, deliberately or accidentally, confused government spending with the cost of government – something Thatcher was inclined to do. But they are different things which demand different criteria. We can have an efficient and pared down state that spends a great deal or a bloated state that doesn’t spend much. In the Cameron world expensive states and expensive social programmes are the same thing. But they aren’t – any more than a profusion of charities can actually stand in for the state, which is what he seems to believe. His attacks on the bullying, authoritarian and target-infested institution the New Labour state has become command widespread sympathy, but this state was the outcome of attitudes as strongly held in the Conservative Party as anywhere else.

Then there is the matter of his judgment. To promise some kind of role and a peerage to General Dannatt, who will probably demand more spending on the ‘front-line’ services in return for his support, while simultaneously trying to cut public spending is not a good move. And Cameron would have avoided much embarrassment had he thought more carefully and looked more closely before he promised to unite the Conservative Party with some of Eastern Europe’s dubious political outfits – particularly as he has done much to divorce the Conservative Party from some of the values they represent.

Probably none of this will matter in the immediate future. The Labour government acts as if it were dead in the water – despite the open target the Tories have offered. Cameron has an attractive political personality, he understands social change when he sees it, and has worked hard to keep the Tories away from the dead-end politics of the 1980s. That should be enough for the moment but not for long.