There is a new consensus about the economy and – believe it or not – Labour called it first

Buried in the coalition’s austerity programme is the kernel of acceptance that, ultimately, government is the solution to economic malaise.

The Conservative Party’s dedication to the memory of Baroness Thatcher is hardly in doubt. Grief at her death earlier this year brought more unity to the party than any of the policies David Cameron has devised for that purpose. In case the point was missed (it wasn’t), a group of Tory backbenchers propose renaming the August bank holiday in honour of the Iron Lady (it won’t be).

But when it comes to influencing government policy, Mrs T is rivalled by the man who brought her down. Michael Heseltine may not enjoy the veneration of his party but he has the ear of its leaders. Earlier this year, he published a plan for stimulating growth by giving regions more control over spending. Chunks of the report have been adopted as government policy. Ask Treasury ministers and advisers about their economic strategy and the chances are that Heseltinian intervention will get a reference before Thatcherism.

Westminster has been so busy noticing the victory of the right in an argument about cuts it has barely clocked the left’s victory in an argument about the duty of the state to foster growth. There is cross-party agreement on the need to spend scarce resources on infrastructure. There is near consensus that the state should be doing more to nurture promising, innovative sectors of the economy. The discredited 1970s practice of “picking winners” has been adjusted and rebranded. It is now a “modern industrial strategy”. Every party will have one in its 2015 manifesto.

Not everyone has received the new wisdom. There are Conservatives who despise all state meddling and think that the only good government intervention is lighting a bonfire of employment rights and workplace protection. Osborne recognises the need to keep that wing of his party fed with meaty policy chunks but his own views are more nuanced.

Cabinet colleagues say the Chancellor privately accepts that Britain already has a liberal labour market and a relatively low-regulation economy. Future growth, in other words, will be spurred by government getting stuck in, not getting out of the way.

Osborne took a gamble on hard and fast cuts in the hope of fighting an election with a tamed deficit and booming economy. That move failed. But cynical risk-taking is not the same as ideological rigidity. Osborne’s allies say his urge to win is greater than his eagerness to parrot Thatcherite shibboleths.

The really zealous expressions of Conservatism are elsewhere, in Michael Gove’s campaign to prise schools away from localauthority control, for example, or in a welfare policy that sees help from the state as a cause of poverty rather than its alleviation. In a fiercely ideological field, economic management is one of the more pragmatic bits of the coalition agenda.

Labour detests the idea that Osborne is flexible. The Chancellor’s refusal to change course has been an opposition mantra. Any dabbling in pro-growth intervention is dismissed with scorn. Money for infrastructure, say shadow ministers, is dwarfed by earlier cuts to capital spending budgets. Funds aimed at supporting new businesses sit idle. If the coalition wanted local growth plans, why scrap regional development agencies? Vince Cable might fancy a new industrial policy but, says Labour, the real agenda is set by old Tory reflexes: tax cuts for the rich; devil take the hindmost.

There are obvious reasons for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to depict Cameron and Osborne as captives of an outmoded and callous creed. At a glance, the cap fits. But by belittling the Tory conversion to active government, Labour misses the opportunity to claim a moral victory. Under the last government, Peter Mandelson led the interventionist revival with his call for a more “strategic state” to navigate chaotic forces of globalisation. In candid moments, Heseltinian Tories concede that Mandelson was right.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dare admit that their economic views are converging. The fortification of opposing trenches, separated by boggy no-man’s-land (aka the Lib Dems), has become a strategic necessity and a source of intellectual comfort. Yet the proximity is clear to anyone outside the two tribes. Labour has accepted that budgets must be cut, as the Tories said all along. The Tories are borrowing to keep the economy afloat, as Labour predicted they would.

Both want to spend on infrastructure and skills. Both are working their way towards a more vigorous industrial policy. Both are planning manifesto chapters on beefing-up consumer regulation to address the rage of people who feel permanently ripped off by banks, utilities, rail companies and pretty much every other essential service, many of which are in the private sector. The political pendulum is swinging towards more, not less, intervention in the economy. That should favour Labour – but before the opposition can take any credit for the new consensus, it has to prove that the consensus is there. That means recognising there is more to Tory economic policy than cuts.

Buried in the coalition’s austerity programme is the kernel of acceptance that, ultimately, government is the solution to economic malaise, not the cause. Miliband and Balls may not want to give the Chancellor credit for getting anything right but they also need to look as if they are winning some big arguments. Full-frontal attack is Labour’s default stance towards Osborne. Sometimes faint praise can be more damning.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband look on during the service to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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