Cameron's promise of more austerity is an election trap for Labour

Miliband must not let austerity define the next election.

The economic significance of David Cameron's suggestion that austerity will last until 2020 is far outweighed by the political significance. Three years out from the next election, the Prime Minister is already attempting to define the terms on which it will be fought. Having previously indicated that austerity will last for another two years, he now speaks of a full five.

In part, this is an admission of failure. The Conservatives' original plan was to go into the 2015 election able to boast that they had cleaned up "the mess" left by Labour - a powerful political narrative - and offer significant cuts in personal taxation. But the failure of George Osborne's deficit reduction plan (the OBR forecasts that the UK will have a deficit of at least £79bn - 4.5% of GDP - in 2015) has forced them to abandon this strategy. Gone are the "sunlit uplands" that Cameron once spoke of, now he forecasts only grey skies. In the Prime Minister's view, however, all is not lost. If the next election is defined by austerity, he believes it is the Tories, rather than Labour, who will benefit. Cameron and Osborne will attempt to paint Labour as the defender of a bloated welfare system (they are encouraged by the popularity of the coalition's benefits cap) and an overmighty public sector. Osborne's promise of another £10bn in welfare cuts is an early preview of this strategy, with Labour uncertain how to respond.

The biggest question now facing the party is whether to allow Cameron to frame the debate or whether to resist him. Should the party accept the Tories' spending plans with some modifications (as it did in 1997), or should it offer a distinct alternative? If it is to win the next election, it must take the latter course. Labour will not triumph on a platform of austerity-lite. Instead, rather than allowing the next election to be defined by austerity, it must ensure it is defined by growth. As Labour MP Gregg McClymont argued last year in a pamphlet for Policy Network, "A patriotic appeal to the nation to improve growth and living standards, not a simple defence of the public sector and public spending, is crucial to foiling Conservative attempts to render Labour the party of a sectional minority."

The frame for Labour's policy offering should be a promise of national reconstruction. Having established a narrative of renewal and growth, it can then move to propose specific institutions such as a British Investment Bank. In 1945, it was Clement Attlee's promise of national revival that allowed him to triumph over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly seventy years later, a patriotic vow to "rebuild Britain" could do the same for Miliband.

David Cameron said he doesn’t “see a time” when the government’s austerity programme will end. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith: Theresa May is the Tory leader Labour should fear

George Osborne is not inevitable as the next Tory leader – and Theresa May could be the one to see him off.

Some people believe that Theresa May has had her day as a Tory leadership contender, but she is a woman who has been underestimated throughout her career. Furthermore, as Angela Merkel, Tessa Jowell, Margaret Hodge and Harriet Harman will tell you, we are in the day of the (slightly) older woman politician. And, while Margaret Thatcher was certainly not an advocate for more Tory women, her legacy is a Conservative party who would not find it impossible to countenance another woman in charge. Could that be May?

Throughout her political career, May has never been seen as “a rising star”. She was involved in politics at Oxford University having gained a place from her grammar school, but was not particularly pushy or sparkling future leader material. She worked in banking for a period and was a councillor in Merton. She fought two unwinnable seats before finally getting elected to parliament in 1997. So no easy, gilded rise through the party for her. Being on the receiving end of some of the misogyny found in all parties’ selection procedures may have been the spur which led her to declare the Conservatives the “nasty party” in her famous 2002 conference speech as party chair under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership. She is a bit of an outsider, willing to argue that her party had to change and to reach out beyond its natural supporters. She is no Robert Halfon-style, blue-collar Conservative, but nor is she a “posh boy” – perhaps the perfect positioning for a future leader.

Thatcher prided herself on being an ‘honorary man’ – no feminist solidarity for her. However, May is much more comfortable supporting other women – she is an advocate of the Tory party’s efforts to find more women candidates. As party leader, she might well find ways to appeal to the older women who tend to vote, but have not always been attracted by the “calm down, dear” machismo of the current  Tory leadership.

A winning party leader will have to command the political centre-ground. May is no rightwing ideologue. She shows little passion for eye-catching policy announcements and has rarely, in recent years ventured beyond her Home Office brief to express strong views or a sense of the direction she would like to take the country in. The British public may not be attracted by demagoguery, but they will need a clear idea of what a May leadership would believe in and do. This could be an even greater barrier to actually getting elected within the Conservative party to begin with. For example, May has largely avoided the issue of Europe. She did make a speech last year criticising the stifling effect of European Union regulation, but the context was interesting. Some saw this as an attempt to broaden her appeal within the party, but it was also made at the time when she was attempting to win support to opt back in to a range of EU justice and home affairs measures including the European arrest warrant, which the government had opted out of in a grandstanding gesture. She may have to make ideological gestures to win  Tory support, but is fundamentally pragmatic.

However, that is not to say that she is not willing to be brave in taking on those who she feels need challenge. Her “nasty party” speech was one such example, but more recently she was willing to offer some home truths to the Police Federation at its conference. This was certainly at a time when the Fed was already weakened by internal divisions and the police was dogged by scandal. But, as any Home Secretary knows, the conference can be an unpleasant and surly event and it shows mettle to take them on in this arena.

Her time as one of the longest serving home secretaries is a double-edged sword for an aspiring Conservative leader. Being Home Secretary is a serious and difficult job – holding onto it for as long as she has means that nobody could doubt her credentials to take one more step up the ladder. Dealing with the security, cross-government issues and “events” which are the bread and butter of Home Secretaries is possibly a better qualification to be Prime  Minister than the more controlled environment of the Treasury. However, the all-encompassing seriousness of the role also makes it more difficult to win support as a future leader or prime minister. Being Home Secretary with the current policy portfolio is essentially about stopping bad things from happening. It does not leave a lot of time to make the wider political arguments or to engage in the “hopey, changey’” thing which many would look for in a future leader.

She has made mistakes – alienating the civil service in a particularly cavalier shifting of the blame onto senior Border Force official Brodie Clark for supposed weaknesses in border security when the fault was in her policy decisions. She has shown bad judgement and a lack of imagination in sticking with a crude immigration cap which achieves the double whammy of being impossible to deliver and perverse in the impact of trying to.

There is no doubt that May is not a clubbable or particularly warm person so has not built up a cadre of enthusiastic supporters. She has lost some good ministers from the Home Office, like Nick Herbert and Pauline Neville-Jones, suggesting that she may not excel at building the sort of team spirit needed to win a leadership bid and maintain the ‘machine’ necessary to be a successful leader.

However, she has built her career so far on not being a “natural” for each of the political jobs she has held. She has outperformed expectations and has some of the ingredients necessary to move the Tory party on from the dilettante gentleman, amateur approach of David Cameron. It is a record and an approach which just might attract both the party and those voters who Labour so desperately needs to win back. Don’t write her off yet.

This essay is from Face-Off, a series of linked articles on the next Conservative leader.