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Cameron’s desperate offer to voters: nastiness in the national interest

The high point of public enthusiasm for the Tories' welfare policies is now.

The Conservative Party is running out of ways to be liked. David Cameron is much prefered to Ed Miliband as a leader; George Osborne is trusted to run the economy more than Ed Balls. But there remains a stubborn cohort of voters, around 40 per cent, which refuses even to countenance the idea of voting Tory. This is the sticky residue of the "nasty party" label that no amount of scrubbing away at the brand seems to shift. It is the presumption shared by millions of people that the Conservatives simply aren't for the likes of them.

The resilience of this prejudice is weighing on the party's strategic minds. Andrew Cooper, Downing Street's resident pollster, has surveyed the land for deposits of potential support to be mined. In a recent presentation at a party away day, he highlighted voter reserves in urban constituencies in the north of England. Wales presents a few opportunities. Scotland is a write-off.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs have been instructed to befriend their local minority-ethnic communities. They have also been reminded to avoid sounding like flint-hearted actuaries when explaining that painful measures are necessary to control the Budget deficit.

The harder it gets to imagine a great surge of affection for the Tories, the more emphasis they place on the policies that do enjoy mass support. Above all, that means faith in the talismanic power of benefit cuts.

Reductions in the welfare budget of £18bn will leave millions worse off. Ordinarily, such a brazen raid on the pockets of the poorest citizens would damage a political party. The Tories can do it because enough people are persuaded that the money represents the last government's subsidy for idleness and an affront to anyone who works for a living.

If the cap fits

Labour is losing this argument and knows it. The government's plan to cap the amount any household can receive at £26,000 – roughly equivalent to an average family income – is especially popular. Many would have the cap much lower. As one shadow minister put it to me, shortly before voting against the measure in parliament: "The only thing my constituents are taking out of this debate is: 'Wow! Can you really get 26 grand on benefits?'" (You can't. The highest payouts are for housing benefit in London, which goes straight to landlords, although that is hardly a more defensible subsidy.)

George Osborne, Cameron's election strategist as well as his Chancellor, is convinced that benefit-bashing has little or no downside. Even when the government encounters resistance to its plans – as recently over a scheme that prodded benefit claimants into unpaid work experience – the message gets across that Tories aim to turn slackers into strivers.

But the effectiveness of that message relies on two promises. First, there will be jobs for those that seek them. Second, welfare will be reformed so it is always more lucrative to work than to sign on. Both propositions look shaky.

Intractable unemployment is already threatening to derail the Work Programme, a vast scheme under which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) uses private companies and charities to place people in jobs. The service providers are paid according to how effectively they steer their "customers" off benefits. Many complain in private that labour-market conditions are making their contracts unviable. A high-profile bankruptcy or an embarrassing government bailout looms.

Meanwhile, the Universal Credit, Iain Duncan Smith's grand project to simplify the benefits system and eliminate perverse disincentives to work, is bogged down in technical difficulty. It was initially conceived as the Work and Pensions Secretary's moral crusade against welfare dependency. It is a labour of love. Unfortunately, love can't commission the complex IT system required to integrate a sprawling mass of disparate entitlements. Nor can it manage relations with the Treasury and local government, without whose co-operation a unified benefits system is impossible.

There is a growing feeling across Whitehall that Duncan Smith and the DWP are bungling the operation and that an October 2013 deadline for delivery looks wildly optimistic. The likeliest outcome is what one senior official describes as "the existing benefits system, slightly tweaked, with a blanket thrown over it".

Off the rails

There is, in other words, no welfare revolution, just cuts. The impact will be felt increasingly by people who have jobs but rely on benefits to stay in their homes, and people who are disabled or chronically ill. Persistent unemployment will make it harder to accuse those who can't find work of not looking hard enough. Shock at a rise in homelessness and conspicuous poverty will make demands on the nation's conscience that compete with confected rage at Labour's spending legacy.

That doesn't mean the opposition will start winning arguments on welfare. Labour needs to have a line before it can defend one. It does, however, seem likely that the high point of public enthusiasm for the Tory position is now. There is a nasty edge to Conservative language around benefits. It is meant to be balanced by the compassionate impulse behind Duncan Smith's reforms, but good intentions cannot stop the IDS train from leaving the rails.

What then will make the Tories liked? The limitations on the party's electoral prospects have been camouflaged by success in controlling the terms of economic debate. The question of whether people like being governed by Conservatives has been subsumed by the argument that, given Labour's supposed vandalism of the public finances, no credible alternative exists.

Cameron more or less admitted that much in a speech to the party faithful on 3 March. "True compassion isn't wearing your heart on your sleeve," he said. "It's rolling up those sleeves and taking the long-term decisions that will really change our country for the better."

Unable to persuade the public that the Tories can be nice, Cameron is forced to offer nasty in the national interest. It is a proposition that failed to win a majority at the last election. There is no obvious reason why it should work better next time.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

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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