The Tories need a better message than "don't let Labour back in"

If the spectre of Gordon Brown alone were sufficient to propel the electorate into Cameron’s arms, he would now be governing with a majority.

There was a period towards the end of 2013, when the Opposition controlled the terms of economic debate. The question to which politics was supposed to have the answer was how the burden of a rising cost of living might be eased (starting with gas and electricity bills).

George Osborne hoped that his Autumn Statement on 5 December would mark the end of that phase. He wants a general return to the topic he prefers and on which he dwells in a speech today – fiscal discipline as the foundation of economic and political credibility.

The message is not new but that’s the point. The Chancellor recognises that his greatest political success this parliament has been persuading enough people that austerity is a necessary consequence of Labour misrule. He now wants to convert that retrospective rhetorical success into a forward-looking campaign. If Labour’s spending habits are the poison, he argues, the antidote cannot possibly be more Labour government. The current plan is working, says Osborne, but more time is needed to finish the job. (This assertion is reinforced with repeated attacks on Labour as the party that lavishes your money on benefit-guzzling foreigners.)

It has been clear that this would be the central argument of a Tory election pitch ever since the Chancellor was forced to abandon his original debt management target in 2012. That was the point at which the "long hard road" metaphor entered Osborne’s lexicon when previously he had hoped to administer a short sharp fiscal shock.

The Tory high command is now pinning its hopes on enduring public reluctance to trust Labour with the nation’s purse. David Cameron is supposed to be the experienced project manager with a reliable plan for economic renovation, while Ed Miliband is the peddler of rickety economic bodges. Central to this proposition is the idea that everything so far has gone according to plan, which is only true if you exclude the first two years of the coalition’s time in government from the reckoning.

Luckily for the Chancellor, there are plenty of conservative commentators who seem content to do just that and Labour’s efforts to pin those long months of stagnation around the government’s neck have failed. Osborne slipped the noose. Another necessary condition for the Conservative strategy to work is that enough voters see a growing economy as compensation for the lean years and so a cause to reward the wisdom incumbent in the Treasury. The Labour view is that they will not. As Ed Miliband’s allies like to point out, a recovery on paper that doesn’t feel like prosperity to most people could reinforce the suspicion that Tories are primarily in the business of helping their rich chums.

Mindful of that hazard, the Chancellor has steered away from the triumphal Tory tone that accompanied the return to positive GDP numbers last year. Today’s speech is all about the need for enduring hardship with a view to long-term salvation. The current advantages of having a Conservative government are posited as stability and incremental improvement. The best is apparently yet to come.

Although this is probably the strongest available line for Osborne, there is a simple contradiction at its heart. If the plan is working, rewards should be imminent. If reward can only be secured by electing a Tory government in 2015, the plan so far can’t have worked. In other words, the Tories want to fight on their record but they also want to defer evaluation of the record until after they have had another term in office. Why should voters grant them that extension? The Conservative answer is that Labour are disqualified by their own recent past. But if the spectre of Gordon Brown alone were sufficient to propel the electorate into Cameron’s arms, he would now be governing with a majority.

The Tories are pretty good at explaining why they think Labour should not be in power but not so good at explaining why Conservatives are the natural and desirable alternative. This is the most consistent weakness of David Cameron’s leadership and I suspect it flows, in part, from a deep-rooted sense of entitlement. It is the expression of the cultural assumption that faute de mieux Britain elects Tory governments; that Prime Ministers such as Cameron are the national default setting. That may have been true for much of the 20th Century but for all manner of reasons – demographic, cultural, economic – I doubt it is true any longer. It wasn’t true in 2010. That is why the Tories only won a partial mandate and are stuck in coalition. That is why they will need a better offer in 2015 than "mission half-accomplished."

George Osborne and Michael Gove at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue