Reasons to vote Tory. Or not.

Blair believed in what he was doing, but it is far from clear that Cameron does.

Here are three arguments for voting Tory in the forthcoming election. First, a hung parliament might spook the markets, causing a run on the pound and a refusal to buy UK government bonds. We would all be ruined and should therefore, whatever our usual allegiances, support the only party likely to achieve a clear majority. Second, a narrow Tory victory would leave David Cameron dependent on the votes of MPs who oppose action on global warming. Third, just as many natural Tories supported Tony Blair in 1997 because he cleansed Labour of any traces of socialism, so we lefties should back Cameron, because he excludes Thatcherite purists from mainstream politics.

But I can't do it, and not only because, whereas Blair believed in what he was doing, it is far from clear that Cameron does. British elections aren't merely about who you want in Downing Street, but about what kind of people you want on the government benches of the Commons and what kind of company they keep. If I ever think of voting Tory, I recall a party conference in the early 1990s where I witnessed, from a few seats away, the orgasmic excitement of overfed, red-faced delegates as speakers ranted about criminals, single mums and benefit scroungers; the minister who, at a late-night conference reception, smacked his lecherous lips while delivering his assessment of nearby women's bodies; the "jokes" about black people some Tories make in private dinner speeches where they think no one will object (or leak to the press).

I recall also the Iraq war. With Labour, there was at least, thanks to a backbench rebellion and Robin Cook's resignation, a significant chance of stopping British involvement. Under a Tory government, there would have been none.

This story appears in this week's edition of the New Statesman.

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Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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