A poll for the BBC Daily Politics suggests that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling are more trusted ‘to steer Britain's economy through the current downturn’ than are David Cameron and George Osborne. The Labour duo get 36% approval and the Tories 30%. 5% is a poor show for Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, given how widely ex-Shell man Cable’s economic analyses are admired in the papers. (Maybe Cable needs to get rid of that Clegg guy.) But at any rate, perhaps the most telling faction in this survey are the 24% who Just Don’t Know. Hard to blame them, really.
So, just to remind George Osborne that next Monday is a Big, Big Day for him. Big Tory conference speech. No drinking on Sunday night, George, early to bed for you with the draft and a red pen.
Economically it’s generally seemed to me that Cameron’s Tories have been shadowing Labour cautiously and looking to stay out of bother. That’s a low-risk game: the ERM disaster of 1992 didn’t cost John Smith any kudos, even though Labour’s policy was no different to the Major government’s. Moreover Cameron’s profile and approval rating has been more closely associated with stands on ‘the broken society’, education, crime, environmentalism etc. Meanwhile Osborne’s line on the economy has felt respectful toward public spending and shy of ‘unfunded’ tax cuts - though, of course, last year’s Conference-delivered pledge to cut inheritance tax for all but millionaires brought a full-throated roar from Middle England that was hugely influential, not least with the Government.
But this year, the utterly wretched state of the economy and the popular anger and bewilderment out there means that Osborne must be very focused and forceful and seen to be straining at the leash for his big chance to turn the world right-side-up again. That’s a test for a smart young operator who has clearly oscillated between poles of opinion within the tenuously ‘modernised’ Tories, and who must hear an awful lot of mutterings about how it was mainly timing and ambition and a bit of a W11 cabal that combined to propel him to a job at the very limit of his competence.
So how will Osborne be feeling about tax cuts this year? Cameron is said to have warmed to them, perhaps having sampled a little of the warmth that would-be Tory voters feel in return for any such pledges. But then Cameron’s ascent to the leadership was founded on the game notion of ‘compassionate conservatism’, so there is a certain imperative for the Tories to funnel any new tax cuts to low/fixed income workers – maybe raising the initial personal tax threshold above subsistence level – maybe devising forms of assistance that are a bit less forbidding than tax credits, though Osborne seems to be sticking by these.
By the by, one of the would-be populist measures that the newly influential Taxpayers Alliance has got behind – namely the Cut the VAT Coalition calling for a reduction in VAT to 5% for all building repair and maintenance work – has got me interested on first inspection.
Anyhow, I imagine Tory Party members would expect at least a pledge of no rises in income tax or national insurance (since Brown may be - allegedly - seeding the ground for a rise in the latter.)
Given the general grousing mood in the country, there must be a good many Tories who feel (in line with red-blooded Labour folk) that the corporate sector needs to suffer this year. But other Tories are bound to be dogmatic that only tax cuts can stimulate growth (what’s that again?) and that (South East) Britain’s wealth-creators must always be stroked and nurtured and protected and not driven from these shores – that peculiar socialism of the rich. So I’m curious to know how your average Joe/Jane Tory feels about bailouts for failing banks.
Less complicatedly, I’d bet that a big majority of Tories will feel it’s time (O, Now More Than Ever!) for Gordon Brown’s fat public sector to take some pain and be scaled down – recruitment freezes, executive salaries slashed, final salary pensions discontinued etc.
If the notion of newly Popular Toryism is to acquire a reality beyond the polls then Osborne needs to position himself as the defender of ordinary households hunkering down to cope with a recession. Everyone has told me to prepare myself for the vision of a sea of blue rinse in the Tory conference hall. But then the Tories need to be the party of pensioners if they want that working majority in 2010: hence the importance of pensions, fuel poverty, etc.
So I hope I get to Birmingham in time on Monday, even if only in time to find a working television set.