New Tory poster swerves to the right

Tough new poster declares: "Let's cut benefits for those who refuse work".

6a00d83451b31c69e2013480008990970c-500wi

Well, not much sign of the "Big Society" here. The Conservatives have just released this new poster, which will go up on 500 sites across Britain tonight.

It's by far the harshest message promoted by the Tories this year and has more in common with Michael Howard's ill-fated 2005 election campaign than with anything we've seen under Cameron's leadership.

It's not the policy as such that's startling (Labour has also pledged to cut benefits for those who refuse work) but the dramatic shift in tone. For Cameron, who spent much of the early part of his leadership "detoxifying" the Conservative Party, it represents a huge gamble.

We know from off-the-record briefings that senior Tories have been privately urging Cameron to "dump" the abstract "Big Society" and revert to a more traditional election strategy. It looks like they won.

A well-documented tug of war has been taking place between Cameron's strategy chief, Steve Hilton, and his director of communications, Andy Coulson, since the turn of the year.

Hilton, heavily influenced by a spell in California, has consistently urged Cameron to run a positive, hopeful Obama-style campaign. The launch of the "Big Society" marked the apotheosis of this strategy. Conversely, Coulson, the ruthless former tabloid editor, has pressed Cameron to run a fierce, aggressive campaign that relentlessly targets Gordon Brown's record. This poster has his fingerprints all over it.

After the launch of this poster, Cameron can be justifiably accused of reverting to a core-vote strategy amid the panic caused by the surge in the Lib Dems' poll ratings.

Whether more follow in its wake or not (is immigration next?), Cameron's claim to be a moderniser is looking remarkably thin tonight.

 

Follow the New Statesman team on Facebook.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.