Economics, politics and the reality of the 'squeezed middle'

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Acting like an opposition while in government can only take you so far

In a more hostile media climate, the coalition's shifts would be portrayed as crass opportunism and

Tomorrow David Cameron will complete the beauty parade of party leaders offering their take on crony capitalism, following on from Ed Miliband's conference speech, which he amplified last week, and Nick Clegg's call for a "John Lewis economy". Expect Cameron to balance a fierce rhetorical attack on boardroom excess ("fill your boots capitalism") with plenty of warm words about the virtues of proper markets and a nod towards the sunny possibilities of "popular capitalism" -- a theme that all Tory leaders since Eden and Macmillan have returned to, along with a good few of their Labour counterparts.

The speech comes in advance of Vince Cable's forthcoming proposals on reigning in executive pay, timed to pre-empt the City bonus season, and it tops off a concerted three week campaign by the coalition to wrestle the theme of "responsible capitalism" out of Labour's hands. Turn the clock back four months, to when Miliband was being derided for his conference speech, and it is clear that this is not a theme that Conservative strategists will have been planning to major on. It has rudely intruded upon their preferred narratives of deficit reduction, broken Britain, and the Big Society.

Leave to one side for a moment your views on the policies (or lack of) to deal with so-called crony capitalism and consider what this episode tells us about the governing habits -- statecraft would be too grand a term -- of the coalition, in particular the Conservatives. A blitz of pamphlets, articles, speeches and briefings have made clear their determination to close down the rhetorical political space that Labour was seeking to occupy. As an orchestrated act of attempted political land-grabbing it has certainly been of the predatory variety. There is, of course, scope for plenty of cynicism about what this will achieve and whether the rhetorical arms-race that has gathered pace will actually lead to any real change. But it has left us in no doubt of the Conservatives' resolve not to be outflanked.

Which brings us to another revealing episode, seemingly unrelated, from last week: the Conservatives' misadventures on the reform of child benefit. At their party conference in 2010, George Osborne, in an attempt to secure his then message of"'we're all in this together", announced that any household with a higher-rate tax payer would see all of their child benefit payments axed. The result? A family with three kids relying on a single earner on £45k would lose around £2.5k; whereas a household on £80k (based on two earners each on £40k) wouldn't lose a penny.

Last week, some 15 months after this announcement and with the implementation date of next January starting to loom large, David Cameron opined that "some people" say that there is a "cliff edge issue". It's a bit unclear who he thinks the "other people" are. Indeed, their proposal creates a cliff-edge so high and steep that safety warnings should be put up for miles around. Nor is it the case that this was a technical problem that has been unearthed after months of forensic analysis by fine minds. Any official advice in DWP and HMT would have made ministers completely aware of all of the problems with the proposal -- the shortcomings are so obvious that any minster with a passing knowledge of the tax and benefit system wouldn't have needed these warnings. The lack of attention to detail, and willingness to sacrifice longer term policy coherence at the altar of short-term political positioning, is revealing.

Do these two recent episodes make a larger point? My sense is they do. Cameron and Osborne, when worried about an issue, still think and act like an opposition. They are swift, intensely political, and relentlessly focussed on their opponents. Whatever their underlying ideological convictions, they travel fairly lightly -- as oppositions tend to -- and, on issues other than their lodestar of deficit reduction, are willing to shift ground quickly to avoid being beached on the wrong side of public opinion. Crucially, however, they are susceptible to mistakes. Notably mistakes of the sort that you can get away with in opposition -- those that bite at some point in the future, at the point of actually having to deliver a policy.

Practicing this approach to politics when in power is both a strength and a weakness. The former because they can move quickly and in a united fashion to exploit a political opportunity or close down a threat, something that many parties quickly lose the capacity to do when in office. The latter because this style of governing, particularly when combined with a loose grip on policy detail, results in flaky decisions and vaulting U-turns (never mind creating turmoil for voters).

What does this mean for their political prospects? For now, not much. Given the intense media focus on Labour, and the generally benign mood towards the coalition, these episodes are smiled upon as evidence of agility and responsiveness. Yet in a more hostile media climate they would be portrayed as crass acts of opportunism and incompetence. And the question as to what the coalition, and the Conservatives in particular, are actually "for" other than deficit reduction would be asked far more pointedly.

Twenty months into office, it is time for the Conservatives to find a better balance between their opposition-like tendencies and the realities of governing. They need to achieve this before, as will happen sooner or later, the media environment turns.