Cameron’s vajazzling of the Tories is over. It's back to being right-wing

The Conservatives' claim to be anything other than a predictably right-wing party is the real casualty of last week.

The net result of the past week is that something resembling a left/right binary seems to have resumed in British politics. Labour has launched a poster slamming the Conservatives for giving a generous tax cut to millionaires. The Tories have tried to tie the appalling case of Mick Philpott to a larger argument in favour of welfare cuts. 

For both parties, their tactics resound with voters. The Tories think they have tapped into a powerful public resentment at something-for-nothing welfarism, while Labour channels public distaste against the rich for not paying their share.

As is often the case, opinion polls show that both sides are on to something. But Tory strategists and commentators who think they have managed to lash Ed Miliband to Mick Philpott overstate their case. Liam Byrne’s sabre-rattling in yesterday's Observer about enforcing a tougher contributory principle in the social security system, rewarding those who have paid into it, is easily understood by the public and leaves the Tories with the task of turning their bar-room rhetoric into policy. They are the government after all.

But Miliband’s enduring challenge in projecting his "one nation" politics is to bear the weight of public expectations – even ones the left doesn’t like - and carve out a new centre ground settlement around those concerns. Hence Labour's decision to devote a recent party political broadcast to immigration. 

However, he needs to be quicker on his feet in doing so. Byrne’s intervention should have been made in last Sunday’s papers, before the Philpott judgement, not yesterday's. (Despite spending the past 14 months doggedly making the case for the contributory principle, Byrne looks like he’s responding to events).

Miliband needs to hold on to his base, marshalling the energy of those on the left who despise the government’s rampant inequality, without becoming framed by their outrage, which is simply not shared by most voters. He needs to be clearer that the Owen Jones’s of the left speak for themselves and not the Labour Party.

But the Tory claim to be anything other than a predictably right-wing party is the real casualty of last week. Cameron never fundamentally altered the nasty party, he simply vajazzled it. It exposes his deep flaws as a leader, a lack of strategic acumen and an inability to put in the spadework that real change demands.

The resurgence of one nation Toryism he initially promised (his huskies and hoodies agenda) has now been scuttled by the imperative of fending off UKIP and restoring equilibrium to his increasingly fractious backbenchers, as David Talbot noted on The Staggers the other day.

So talk of "the big society" has faded to a whisper. Measuring happiness is passé when your rhetoric is actively seeking to sow division. While, most damningly, claims that "we’re all in this together" ring even hollower in a week where a millionaire Tory Chancellor sought political advantage in the deaths of six children.

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration at in Ipswich, eastern England on 25 March, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.