In the executive lounge on the 23rd floor of the Manchester Hilton, George Osborne is addressing a throng of MPs, journalists and the corporate friends of the Conservative Party who almost outnumber delegates at their annual conference. The Chancellor is the guest of honour at a champagne reception hosted by the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers. As is customary, he gives a pep talk.
“We are winning the economic argument,” Osborne declares. It is item one in a three-point plan of how the Tories can secure a general election victory in 2015. Item two is “optimism”. The Conservatives have a vision of Britain’s future that embraces the challenges of global competition. This is in contrast to the sour pessimism of “the socialists”, who are retreating into discredited dogmas of state control.
Finally, there is “leadership”. In essence, David Cameron looks like a proper prime minister, while Ed Miliband is a drooling left-wing maniac. The Chancellor summates in the spirit of Margaret Thatcher. The theme for the next campaign, he declares, will be much the same as the one that carried the Iron Lady to a landslide victory in 1983: “Britain is on the right track. Don’t turn back now.”
For a politician feted as a Machiavellian schemer, Osborne is remarkably candid about his strategic calculations. One ministerial colleague compares him to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a building well known for its mechanical exoskeleton. “With George, all the plumbing is on the outside.” Yet when it comes to the Chancellor’s cunning re-election plan, there is a tangle in the pipes. The Conservatives seem to think they can look futuristic by re-enacting a battle they won against Michael Foot 30 years ago.
The deeper problem for Tory strategists is that people can simultaneously blame the last Labour government for an economic mess and tire of Conservative claims to be clearing it up. So Cameron and Osborne will offer themselves as guardians of a fragile economy that Miliband would bludgeon with state sabotage. Senior Tories have feasted on the Labour leader’s speech to his own party conference to nourish the argument that he is a leftist delinquent. They see pledges to cap energy prices and force developers to surrender land if they won’t build houses on it as proof of intellectual juvenility – an immature distaste for capitalism that can be contrasted with Cameron’s grown-up approach. The popularity of Miliband’s ploys is dismissed as proof of Labour’s irresponsibility. Quick fixes will unravel under scrutiny, say Tory ministers. The public will not stay fooled for long.
That charge is woven together with the depiction of Ed Balls as a devotee of reckless spending to show Labour sliding into anachronism, thinking government can solve every problem by diktat or debt. It is an account of the Miliband project that reassures the Conservative grass roots and flatters the polemical impulses of Tory-leaning media. That doesn’t make it true. The reality is that the shadow chancellor has committed Labour to levels of fiscal restraint that infuriate the left of his party. Within that framework, Miliband and his advisers rack their brains for ways to show that Labour could make a difference to people’s lives without simply turning on the Whitehall money taps.
The promise to freeze energy bills was not, as the Tories suppose, a panicky gesture to fill up some blank space in a policy prospectus that was coming under critical scrutiny. It was a carefully planned intervention to begin wresting control of the economic debate away from Osborne. Instead of asking who best manages the Budget, Labour wants voters to ask whose side the parties are really on.
On the day of Miliband’s speech, Conservative ministers leaped into the trap, apparently defending the rights of unloved utility companies to gouge their customers. They then spent their own conference denouncing the spectre of neo-Bolshevism, while privately fretting over the inadequacy of their response to soaring household bills.
Miliband’s manoeuvre may not achieve much more than temporary Tory disorientation. Labour could still end up looking as if it is wringing its hands on the sidelines of Osborne’s growing economy, without offering an alternative route to prosperity. Where the opposition leader thinks the Tories are vulnerable is that people don’t experience wealth as incremental rises in quarterly GDP data. Meanwhile, many of the conspicuous obstacles to a better quality of life – low wages, high prices, rubbish service – are functions of the private sector operating in badly regulated, failed markets. The solution may often be more competition, not state control, but it still takes government intervention to bring that about.
The Tories should be wary of defining socialism so broadly as to encompass any political resentment of a complacent corporate status quo. That is the reactionary impulse behind the Daily Mail’s hysterical depiction of Miliband as the carrier of congenital sedition inherited from his Marxist father. In his response to that charge, the Labour leader spelled out his political creed in terms that neither Ralph Miliband nor Michael Foot would readily have used. He wrote: “I want to make capitalism work for working people, not destroy it.”
Conservatives can try to argue that Miliband is doomed to fail in that ambition because he doesn’t love markets enough. They can insist that he is disqualified from even trying to fix capitalism because he served in a government that presided over the greatest financial crisis in living memory. What they shouldn’t do is deny that it is the right ambition for someone who wants to be prime minister or imagine that Miliband doesn’t mean what he says – 2015 will be unlike 1983. Cameron and Osborne should concentrate on fighting the opponent they have, instead of implausibly casting him as the enemy they want.