Cruel to be kind

Whenever they talk about welfare, the Tories are called nasty. So did Cameron succeed this time?

"Tough Love", "Cruel To Be Kind", "Stopping Something for Nothing" and other clichés that sound like pomp-filled, Eighties rock ballads by Jon Bon Jovi have been used to describe David Cameron's plans for the welfare system. Camer on and Chris Grayling, the impressive shadow work and pensions secretary, said the long-term unemployed would have to work on community schemes to receive benefits. Those who refused jobs would have their payments docked. "Where is the dignity in sitting at home, dependent on the state, not having a job?" Cameron declared.

The timing was important; the party leader and his strategists were aware they had to wait until he was out in front. Only then would voters be prepared to hear such thoughts from a Tory. For years the Conservatives have had an image problem and Team Cameron knew they had to de-trash the brand before they could be confident enough to tackle core Tory themes in a different way. This has taken some time. During her speech at conference in 2002, the party chairman at the time, Theresa May, tried to wipe the slate clean: "You know what some people call us - the nasty party." The statement was picked apart and caused divisions within the party.

Katie Perrior, then May's press officer (now Boris Johnson's chief of communications), had her reservations. "It was difficult at the time. The following day's coverage was 'Stiletto in the Tories' heart'. Looking back, what Theresa said was absolutely right - we had to show we were not the nasty party we were wrongly portrayed as, but my gut instinct was that it was too early. We spent the following year travelling round Britain reassuring hard-working supporters we did not consider them nasty."

Historically, Tory get-togethers have been a platform for gaffes that have added to the party's troubled image. In 1983, at a Young Conservative rally at Wembley, Kenny Everett, an enthusiastic Tory, yelled: "Let's nuke Russia!" and "Let's kick Michael Foot's stick away!" Not the party's fault, but probably not in the best possible taste.

Norman Tebbit encouraged the jobless to "get on yer bike". Peter Lilley twice gave singing performances. In 1992, as social services secretary, he sang his own take of "I have a little list", from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan, chastising those who unfairly claimed benefits. It was perhaps no surprise that Cameron chose not to launch his welfare policy with George Osborne in a Flanagan and Allen, music-hall style.

Towards the end of her time in office, people thought of Margaret Thatcher as someone who enjoyed punishing people. Soul-destroying com ments, such as one of the most famous attributed to her, that "Any man seen riding a bus after the age of 30 should consider himself a failure", were not viewed as pleasant.

More recently, there was a mixed reaction from Conservative MPs when asked about the 2005 "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" election campaign. Some thought it "sensationalistic, but just what we needed to draw back the votes we could have lost from grass-roots Tories looking elsewhere". Others saw it as unhelpful.

"We played right into the hands of how the government wanted to portray us," one MP said. "The problem was, if you asked the man on the street what they thought we [Conservatives] 'were thinking', it was always going to be more extreme."

Much of the image deterioration was engineered by Labour in the 1990s; it has stuck with the line, still using it today. Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown's former spin doctor, admits that the agenda was to portray the Tories as nasty. "It wasn't difficult at the time," he says. "They were an easy target."

Much harder time

Fast-forward to September 2007 and Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman. The Conservatives were still "the nasty party", she said, as she took a swipe at Cameron's commitment to a married couples tax allowance.

A memory etched on the minds of Cameron's aides is the result of a 2004 focus group. Participants were asked their views on various policies. There would be an approving reaction but when told it was Tory policy, they would recoil, claiming there must be something left out.

A senior strategist says: "Our plan was to go into unfamiliar areas and establish our credentials as human. We needed to work out a different way of talking about welfare, similar to the way we spoke about immigration in autumn last year. It has always been easier for Labour to talk about poverty. They have continually charged toff, unfeeling Tories with being unable to address social issues. Look at Brown's welfare-to-work plans; if we had come out with that, we would have had a much harder time."

Inspiration has come from the American pollster Frank Luntz. His talent is "testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate", says a Cameron aide, adding: "We have looked closely at the language of US politics. Their current election and the sensitivity to language has not gone amiss." It's not what you say, it's the way that you say it.

When the Tories trailed their welfare policy, the employment minister, Caroline Flint, was quick to point out that the ideas had been "pinched from Labour". Yet the story continued to run strongly and Cameron did the broadcast media rounds with positive results.

This is a time of year when many people think in terms of detox. The Tories have been detoxing for the past two years.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked