Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Challenge for Cameron

As the dust settles on the 2008 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, our final in a series of guest posts from Conservative Bloggers is from West Brom Blogger, that rare breed of a Sandwell-based Tory. He takes a look at what challenges Cameron has faced and still needs to face in preparation for forming a future government.

New Labour! New Britain! New Labour! New Britain! That was the cry back in 1994 as Tony Blair proclaimed, “the whole ideology of conservatism has failed”.
After more than a decade of failed social democratic experiments and an economy in the grip of its worst crisis in 60 years; the same could probably be said today of Labour’s “third way”. The grand coalition of working and middle class voters that swept New Labour to power in 1997 is preparing to sweep it back out again. If the polls are to believed, the Tories will form the next government; Mr Cameron will be our next Prime Minister.

For over a decade, a broken Tory party—stuck with its core vote in the polls ever since ERM —has been the central fact of British politics, enabling New Labour to dominate the centre ground unchallenged. But it was the arrival in 2005 of a relative unknown in the form of David Cameron as Conservative leader that changed all this. Cameron reckoned that the central debate of politics had changed. “The great challenge of the 1970s and 1980s was economic revival. The great challenge in this decade and the next is social revival.”

Cameron recognised the need to reposition the party; to decontaminate a brand that was still suffering from the fallout of the 1990’s. Just as New Labour appeared to publicly swallow de-regulation and free markets, Cameron forced the Tories to swallow Labours commitments on public service reform and social liberalism. He brought the parties less obvious support for tackling climate change (it was actually Mrs Thatcher that was the first global leader to recognise the threat of a changing climate) to the fore, and spent an enormous amount of time talking about marriage, families and children. He has promised to fix “a broken society”, with plans for new workfare schemes and a Swedish style voucher system for schools. Cameron has positioned the Tories as the party of society, while presenting Labour as the party of the top down mechanistic state.

Some of this has been famously transparent (remember the huskies?) he has been accused of putting spin before substance, and up to a point his critics have had a point.
Cameron has presented a narrative rather than a clear policy portfolio. Up until now, that has been understandable, Labour has a habit of nicking the best ideas, but the rude interruption of a global economic crisis causes Cameron a dilemma as well as an opportunity. Cameron may have expected that as PM his task would be to do something about our frayed social fabric but if he wins the next election he will take the helm of a nation in economic trauma. And here lies the rub of the problem for Dave, trust. Just before the last general election, Labour led on trust to run the economy by 22%; at the start of the summer we were ahead by 12 points. Then came Black Monday and the near collapse of HBOS, now the polls suggest Gordon Brown is ahead on trust. We may be beginning to reclaim the ground that once looked as impregnable as it was vital but we have not yet convinced enough voters that we would be better at running the economy.

Cameron and Osborne have been understandably cautious. Osborne has seen fit to develop Labour's approach rather than break with it; tweaks rather than an overhaul. But with the current economic crisis being likened to the great crash of 1929, that’s not good enough. It won’t be the crash that causes the long term problems but the flawed policy responses that follow it. What we need now is a clear break, a clear alternative to Gordon Brown’s financial mismanagement.

One thing Cameron is not short of is ammunition; Brown's much-touted economic stability was built on the rickety foundations of a credit and house-price boom. Cameron will need to push home the fact that while Gordon talks about the need for more "transparency in the city" he engages in 'off the balance sheet' PFI accounting practices which would have corporate executives brought before a court of law. That while Brown now criticises the "irresponsible behaviour" in they city, he didn’t care about the debt or the "irresponsible behaviour" when it actually mattered, he didn’t care about the house price bubble; he just reaped in the extra taxes.

But its not enough just to find fault with Labour. If we are to look like the government-in-waiting, then Cameron will need to appear statesman like. A crisis presents politicians with an opportunity; Cameron must seize the one presented by the current financial turbulence to espouse the sort of tough medicine, good house keeping economic policy reminiscent of the Thatcher years. We have to use our spot in the lime light to spell out how we would handle the crisis.

Cameron needs to make clear that the Tories don’t stand for nationalising banks or subsidising failure. While we want innocent savers to be protected we wont stand for the poorest in society being forced to bail out the mistakes of the some of the wealthiest; that we don’t stand for socialised fat cats.

Andrew Allison has already made the case for lower taxation. Public mood on tax is on our side; a recent poll for the Telegraph suggested that the public is far more concerned about the overall tax burden than than it is fearful of the consequences of spending cuts. The Lib Dems have already proven that they understand this, Cameron must not ignore the issue.

This conference is vitally important for the Conservative Party. David Cameron has already done the hard work of ‘de-toxing’ the Tory brand, but the party cannot hope to ride to victory by simply standing on the sidelines as the Government flails. By the end of this conference the public must understand the alternative on offer.

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