Cameron is right: the common ground is not the centre ground

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing.

There’s been no shortage of opinion on how David Cameron should lead and direct the Conservative Party over the last few days. And even less scarce are the various calls for turning and lurching that would resemble a new disco dance routine were he to take heed. However Cameron's public response has been to stay firmly on message. Amongst all these cliches, I can’t help wondering if I am alone in thinking: 'I agree with Dave?'

In his Sunday Telegraph article, Cameron maintained that what he cares about are the needs of the "ordinary people". He also rightly acknowledged that the common ground is not the same as the lowest common denominator. This may point to both a savviness about the current public mood and a deeper astuteness of leadership that rises above the demands from his party grassroots.

Before I go on, I just want to make it clear, I’m not a natural Cameroon by any means. My impression of Cameron during the 2010 election was accurately represented by the election advert spoofs of him intensely gazing outwards from the sky blue backdrop with the caption "Vote Conservative. Or I will kill this kitten." In other words, I found the - similarly intense - promise of a new brand of progressive Conservatism slightly nauseating, if not altogether spurious.

However, as with any reality TV gameshow, which politics unfortunately often resembles, the true test of determination is one which withstands time in the hot seat – something David Cameron must know much about. And actually, political manoeuvring is, by definition, anything other than staying on course.

Last week, the Daily Telegraph ran an editorial with the standfirst, "A new path to prosperity is the only means by which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor can return the Tories to favour". That is just the type of shortsighted viewpoint which leads to complacency in the better times and crisis in the worse. A healthier economy might dampen the volume, but it won’t erase memories of expenses scandals, various cases of "inappropriate" conduct, or one-off events such as "plebgate" and "pastygate".

But what do the public want? Well for starters, 'the public' are disillusioned with politics and distrusting of politicians. According to Lord Ashcroft, three quarters of those who supported UKIP in Eastleigh said their vote was a protest vote out of discontent with the main parties. They (and why do political commentators always refer to the public as a separate body? More like we) have ideals of fairness that correlate with perceptions of recognition, responsibility, but also responsiveness – of a system that will be on our side no matter which side we are on, and that will safeguard our opportunities in times of plenty and in times of misfortune. It might all sound a bit Rawlsian but actually this as simple as it gets for the 'ordinary' voter (or eligible-but-can’t-be-bothered-non-voter) who only engages with politics once every four years.

So the common ground isn’t the middle ground, although the terms are often used interchangeably, something I have been guilty of in the past. It is not about the "bell curve of voters in the middle" as Bernard Jenkins put it. Indeed, it is about disrupting the status quo of adversarial politics for one which requires deeper thought and questioning of mainstream assumptions. It is recognising that my ordinary isn’t your ordinary, but respecting that there are ways of making policy which can recognise and respect both. And actually, this doesn’t have to be confrontational. It could be consensual. I’m not saying that we have absolutely no need for the more conventional political jostling at appropriate points in the legislative and scrutiny process. But the current culture of politics prioritises this over all other types of dialogue. Politicians do not always need to be carved from the same mould just because the media thrive best on stories about rebels and ridicule.

Outside the Westminster wrestling ring and town hall terrains, there is no left-wing or right-wing – on this also I agree with Dave. If Ed Miliband stole the Conservatives’ clothes when quoting Disraeli’s "one nation" back in the autumn, perhaps Cameron deliberately took a swipe back by referencing the common ground. Whilst he linked the phrase to Keith Joseph (probably as an olive branch to the dedicated readers of the Torygraph) it is also resonant of the "common good" attributed to Michael Sandel, one of the more recently proclaimed gurus of the Labour Party. This narrative promotes a moral argument for a political and economic vision which transcends party politics and draws instead on values, shared responsibility and civic engagement. A coincidence or something more from the man whose mind is set on opening the doors of a party once seen as restricted to the fox hunting, land-owning elite?

It is types not unlike these calling for the shotguns now. So, will Cameron really be fending off a leadership challenge in the next few months? I think not. Realistically no one other than him could respectably lead the Conservatives through the 2015 election. Abandoning his carefully crafted principles around international aid or the NHS would make him a laughing stock, rather than a conviction politician. And I also don’t begrudge him having a long-term vision. But perhaps this long term vision isn’t just about jobs, education and house building. Perhaps it is in recognition of the fact that politics itself might be changing.

Caroline Macfarland is managing director of ResPublica

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Caroline Macfarland is manging director of ResPublica

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.