Responding to the Spectator

James Macintyre responds to the <a href="http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/3456486/responding-t

Why is it that attacking the Labour party in print is seen as fair game in the Westminster playground and common practice for “neutral” journalists, but dare to turn your fire on David Cameron's Conservative party and you are dismissed as a mad, foaming-at-the-mouth red under the bed?

That's the question I asked myself not for the first time as I was alerted – while printing off Cameron's latest speech on how to cut public spending - to the attack by the Spectator's political editor, Fraser Nelson on my article in this week's New Statesman scrutinising the extent of Tory policy reform.

For going against the conventional wisdom that Cameron has “modernised” the Tory party, and looking at the major policy areas with scepticism, I am accused of being “from the Planet Zog”, of the “hard-left” viewpoint that “anything short of nationalisation of the means of production is a capitalist plot”.

Well, I am glad Nelson raises nationalisation because the point I was trying to make was precisely that Cameron has failed in making any major change on a par with either Tony Blair's symbolic abolition of the nationalising “Clause IV”, or for that matter, with Neil Kinnock's spectacular expulsion of Militant in the 1980s. (My point is that Kenneth Clarke, on the other hand, would have made abandoning the ideological commitment to tax cuts the party's “Clause IV”, creating a compromise with the electorate of the sort that Cameron, and the unsackable George Osborne, have repeatedly said is not needed (we'll see).)

Instead, from the moment he emerged on the scene and wowed the media with a speech without notes in 2005, Cameron has been awarded the title “moderniser” for nothing more than a series of photo-opportunities.

Nelson, ever keen bravely to leap to the defence of the Tory leadership, disputes this, and – unlike during the radio appearance to which he refers – attempts to list some of the changes. Unfortunately, they make uncharacteristically lightweight reading:

His first and main claim (other than references to language and rhetoric changes which prove my point neatly) is that Cameron has “embraced the social justice agenda”; but substance to back this dramatic assurance there comes none. Forgive me if I sound like I'm from the “hard-left” but my understanding of social justice is that it involves wildly leftist concepts like mild redistribution of wealth; helping the poor, and so on (not, say, raising the inheritance tax threshold for the very rich).

Incidentally, I note that Nelson's blog sits next to another Spectator one by Peter Hoskin, entitled “The Tories are ramping up their spending cut rhetoric”. I hope Nelson wouldn't smear his colleague with the “hard-left” gag.

Nelson also denies that Cameron made a U-turn on grammar schools, despite the fact that his original plan of saying there will be no new ones under a Tory government was reversed, with Cameron appeasing his Tory critics, explicitly stating this was not a “Clause IV” moment and saying “I don't go around picking a fight with my party”. I am surprised Fraser, an assiduous Cameron-watcher, “missed” the U-turn story when it was in covered by the rest of the Tory press.

Nelson also ridicules my claim that Cameron is set to penalise single mothers – perhaps this is one of the “lies” he mysteriously refers to towards the end of his blog. He must, then, have missed the story that Cameron will reward through the tax system married couples, and middle class couples when one of those is wealthy enough to stay at home. These are not, I fancy, policies aimed at the single mother on a council estate in Hull.

As to Nelson's wacky claim that Cameron has softened the Tory message on immigrants, after the Tory leader has repeatedly used the populist Sun to lament the flooding of Britain by too many of them, and accuse the Government of “lying” over “uncontrolled”, “unsustainable” numbers, I am more surprised Nelson missed them, too, than I am that Cameron has taken such an approach given his masterminding of the notoriously racist “are you thinking what we're thinking” 2005 general election strategy.

But, hey, I'm not a great one for blogging – yet - and like Nelson, no doubt, I have one or two other things to do, though there is one point on which I would agree with Nelson: we have indeed not met. So, let me suggest we have a debate on the great Cameron hologram – a venue or platform of his choice. Fraser, I look forward to meeting you.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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