Show Hide image

The Lib Dem plan to retoxify the Tory brand

No 10 fears that the public hears the words "Conservative reform" and understands "mass privatisatio

The Conservative Party has a stitch. It is a feeling familiar to anyone who was forced to do cross-country running at school. You set off at a gallop, arms swinging, and then, halfway round the football pitch, it strikes. You clutch your abdomen and lapse into a lopsided trot.

The Tories charged into government last year with a combination of Olympian confidence and adolescent impatience. After 13 years in opposition, they had a lot of pent-up energy, which they sought to unpent with a frenzy of reforms. Schools, prisons, the health service, the police, welfare - the zeal spread to every department.

Then came the stitch or, as it was officially designated in connection with NHS reforms, "the pause". The Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, had to stop running altogether. Ken Clarke's liberal justice reforms are face-down in a muddy puddle of tabloid hostility. At the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude was meant to launch a white paper on public-sector reform in January. Much of it is written but the document has gone astray. It is now due, a spokesman says, "some time in the summer".

Watered down

Civil servants who, last year, were cheering the new government's vigour, now sneer at its disorderly retreats. "They just don't seem to have thought any of this stuff through," grumbles one Treasury mandarin. The feeling is mutual. A minister recently complained to me about the shoddy service provided by officials: "We are months behind because no one can even put an apostrophe in the right place."

But the problem is not civil servants with bad grammar; it is voters with long memories. The real cramp in the government's style is caused by an old sensitivity over the Tory brand.

David Cameron's four-year project to "decontaminate" his party's image in opposition was only a partial success. Residual fear of what the Conservatives might do to public services was a factor in Cameron's failure to secure a majority in 2010. Hooking up with the Liberal Democrats allowed him to pose as a non-tribal figure, governing across party lines, in the national interest. He was helped by Nick Clegg's initial strategy of owning the whole programme. The Lib Dem leader resisted the idea of carving up the coalition project into distinct yellow and blue portions, for fear that he would look like a bit player, begging for policy morsels at a Tory table.

The Lib Dems' catastrophic results in the local and Scottish elections in May and humiliation in the campaign for voting reform forced a change of plan. Now, the goal is to seek "definition" for the party within the coalition. That, Clegg's closest allies privately concede, amounts to a strategy of retoxifying the Tories. Then the Lib Dems might get some credit as a moderating influence.

Lansley's Health and Social Care Bill was the obvious first target. Opinion polls consistently show voters distrusting the Tories on the NHS. Long before the Lib Dems went public with their objections, George Osborne was growing impatient with the Health Secretary's bulldozing approach. It was the Chancellor who, in a crisis meeting this year with Clegg and Lansley, was banging the table, demanding the reforms be watered down.

One fear at No 10 is that the public hears the words "Conservative reform" and understands "mass privatisation". That anxiety helps to explain the disappearance of Maude's white paper. The proposals were supposed to open up vast areas of the public sector to competition from private companies and charities. In February, Cameron described this as a mission to "release the grip of state control". Only the judiciary and national security would be exempt.

By May, however, the tone had changed. Maude warned a private meeting of business leaders, eager to snaffle up the contracts for outsourced public-sector work, that they would be disappointed. According to a leaked memo, Maude told the Confederation of British Industry that "the government was not prepared to run the political risk of fully transferring services to the private sector, with the result that [it] could be accused of being naive or allowing excess profit-making by private-sector firms".

The right wing of the Tory party is appalled by this loss of nerve. It blames the Lib Dems and Andrew Cooper, co-founder of the Populus polling company, who was appointed as Cameron's director of strategy in February. It was Cooper's polling that first helped persuade Cameron that the Tory brand was contaminated. He has been heard talking about aspects of the public-sector reform programme as "second-term issues". Yet Cooper also offers comfort to the right. His recent surveys, showing the Tories looking "soft on crime", nudged Cameron into a U-turn on Clarke's justice reforms.

No such thing

The Prime Minister has done what he always does when worried about his image: he has relaunched the "big society". Last month, he announced new measures to support charitable giving and volunteering. This persistence baffles much of Westminster. By most measures, the big society is a PR flop. Voters are confused by it. Tory candidates struggle to sell it on the doorstep. Cuts to local authority budgets are starving the charities that are meant to deliver it.

Still, Cameron presses on. Partly, this is stubbornness. He believes he is on to something with the big society and won't stop talking about it until people agree. He also knows that chatter around the subject can help the party, even when the tone is dismissive. As one government adviser put it to me: "That the big idea people are talking about has the word 'society' in it is already a result in terms of the brand, when, not long ago, the only thing people knew about Conservative ideas was Thatcher saying there was no such thing."

The big society was hatched as part of the original plan to decontaminate the Tories and that project is unfinished. Cameron wants to be seen as the leader of a bold, reforming government, without sounding like a free-market fundamentalist, while the Lib Dems need voters to suspect the worst in all radical Tory ideas. Clegg has, so far, held back from trying to toxify the Prime Minister's pet project. We'll know the coalition has really hit the wall when the Deputy Prime Minister says, "There's no such thing as the big society."

Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman

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

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

Michael Cooper/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The players make their mistakes on the pitch – I make mine on the page

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up.

I was a bit humiliated and ashamed and mortified last week because of letters in this magazine about one of my recent columns. Wait till I see the Correspondence editor: there must be loads of nice letters, yet he or she goes and prints not just one, but two picking me up on my mistakes. By the left.

But mainly, my reaction was to laugh. Typical, huh, I’ve gone through life spelling things wrong, with dates dodgy, facts fictional – will I ever learn?

John Lennon did not use a watch. He maintained that he had people on the staff who would tell the time. I don’t wear a watch, either, but for different reasons. I want to get my wrists brown and I hate carrying anything.

By the same milk token, I don’t worry about my spelling. Like Lennon, I expect others to clear up after me. Surely the subs should have spotted it was a typo, that it is 64 years since 1951, not 54 as I wrote? What do they do all day? The other mistake was about replays in the League Cup: too boring to repeat, you would only yawn.

I usually try to get the spelling right the first time I use a word, then bash on, letting it come out any old way, intending to correct it later. Is it Middlesbrough or Middlesborough? Who cares? I’ll check later. Then I forget.

I was so pleased when Patrick Vieira left Arsenal. I found those ten seasons a nightmare, whenever I realised his surname was lumbering into vieiw (I mean “view”). Why couldn’t I memorise it? Mental laziness. The same reason that I don’t know the phone numbers of any of my children, or the correct spelling of my grandchildren’s names, Amarisse and Siena. I have to ask my wife how many Ss and how many Ns. She knows everything. The birthday of every member of the royal family? Go on, ask her.

I might be lazy on piddling stuff such as spelling but I like to think my old brain is still agile. I have three books on the go which are hellishly complicated. I have the frameworks straight in my head but I don’t want to cram anything else in.

It can be a bit embarrassing when writing about football, though. Since sport was invented, fans have been making lists, trotting out facts, showing off their information. As a boy, I was a whizz on the grounds of all 92 League clubs, knew the nicknames of all the clubs. It’s what you did. Comics like Adventure produced pretty colour charts full of such facts. I don’t remember sitting down and learning it all. It just went in, because I wanted it to go in.

Today, the world of football is even madder on stats than it ever was. I blame computers and clever graduates who get taken on by the back pages with nothing else to do but create stats. And TV, with its obsession with possession, as if it meant anything.

I find that if I watch three live games in a weekend, which often happens, I have totally forgotten the first two by the time the third comes up. Not just the score but who was playing. When Wayne Rooney or whoever is breaking records, or not, my eyes go glazed, refusing to take in the figures. When I read that Newcastle are again winless in their first seven League games now, I start turning the pages. If I get asked who won the Cup in 1923, my immediate answer is HowthefeckdoIknow. Hold on, I do know that. It was the first Cup final at Wembley, won by Bolton Wanderers. I remember that, having been there. I don’t know the dates of any other Cup final winners. England’s World Cup win? That was 1966 and I really was there.

I love football history (I’ve written three books about it) but it’s the players and the history of the clubs, the boots and strips, development in the laws, that’s what I enjoy knowing. Spellings and dates – hmm, I do always have to think. Did the Football League begin in 1888 or 1885? If I pause for half a second, I can work it out. Professional football came in first, which must have been 1885, so the Football League came later. Thus the answer is 1888. Bingo. Got it.

But more often than not, I guess, or leave it out. So, sorry about those mistakes. And if you’ve spotted any today, do keep it to yourself. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide