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.”