Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Creating a new Tory while fixing the economy

The leading partner in the British coalition has some big tasks on its to-do list.

More Mr Nice Guy
THE Conservative Party, which gathered in Manchester for its annual conference last week, is facing two struggles. The long-term one concerns its image. The immediate battle is to revive the economy.

That urgent task now looks even tougher. Just hours before David Cameron gave his big conference speech… growth in the first half of 2011 was revised down by the Office for National Statistics; responding to the gloom, the Bank of England announced a fresh round of quantitative easing…

The government was counting on a speedy recovery from recession to help it fulfil its main purpose, which is to eliminate the structural fiscal deficit by 2015. That prospect looks increasingly uncertain…

As an effort to perk up the nation, Mr Cameron’s speech went as far as bromides about British indefatigability can. Senior Tories worry that economic pessimism, of the kind that characterised the recent conference of the Liberal Democrats (their coalition partners), will sap confidence further…

[Chancellor of the exchequer George] Osborne has been in office for a year and a half. By a similar stage of Gordon Brown’s time at the Treasury, he had earned the nickname the “iron chancellor”. His fiscal discipline turned out to be flexible but, for better or worse, Mr Osborne’s seems adamantine. True, he announced some measures to boost growth: some cumbersome labour laws are to be cut away; “credit easing”, a so-far vague attempt to give business lending a nudge, is on the cards, too. But these, critics say, are piecemeal. Anything that would cost serious money, and disrupt his deficit-reduction plan, was ruled out. Tory tax-cutters left Manchester in glum mood.

By contrast, the second, long-term struggle facing the Conservatives—to improve their reputation—must be fought by them alone…

One of the forgotten victims of the financial crash was the project to “modernise” the Tory party. It lost three elections because voters saw the party as selfish and malign. In the grating argot of his public-relations past, Mr Cameron was elected to “decontaminate” the brand. Green gestures, liberal noises on race and sexuality and a focus on public services and poverty all helped him to make progress.

But the crash disrupted all this. Mr Osborne had to swap his generous spending plans for austerity. Mr Cameron had to show competence ahead of niceness. The most persuasive explanation for the party’s failure to win last year’s election outright is that it hadn’t sufficiently softened its reputation.

With their eyes fixed on the next election, Tory modernisers want to finish what they started in 2005, when Mr Cameron took over. How to convey compassion without spending cash is the conundrum for modern Conservatives…

Mr Cameron is indeed his party’s ultimate asset. But he faces a tough assignment. A recent poll by YouGov for the IPPR, a think-tank, revealed that 42% of voters say they would “never” back the Conservatives, leaving them with the smallest pool of potential supporters of any major party. It isn’t surprising that Mr Cameron is trying to expand it—nor that he is fighting the battle for the moral high-ground as assiduously as he is struggling to fix the economy.

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