As Jonathan Freedland points out in today’s Guardian, the past few weeks have seen an extraordinary number of Tory gaffes and U-turns take place. Here are five of the most striking.
1) Spending cuts
The Tories have scaled down their commitment to spending cuts in the first year, promising only to “make a start” in reducing the Budget deficit. This may be reasonable (and something progressives should welcome) but it is distinctly at odds with the party’s earlier position. David Cameron’s belated acknowledgement that the fragile recovery means significant cuts are unfeasible makes his party’s previous stance look naive.
Meanwhile, George Osborne still refuses to say how much of the £178bn deficit the Tories would eliminate over the next parliament, merely stating that the party will go “further and faster” than Labour. But how much further? We still don’t know.
2) Lord Stern
George Osborne’s exaggeration of Lord Stern’s advisory role was the most surprising and unnecessary gaffe of all. Stern’s retraction was unambiguous: “I am not, and have no plans to be, an adviser to any political party.” Whether he will play any role in the Tories’ “re-education” programme for anti-green candidates is unclear.
3) Lord Ashcroft’s tax status
The one issue Cameron still shows no sign of getting a grip on. His failure to demand that Ashcroft reveal his tax status has been one of the biggest moral and strategic blunders of his leadership. His own backbenchers, severely disciplined over their expenses, are increasingly exasperated by the special treatment extended to Ashcroft. The nature of the peer’s “undertaking” on his tax status will now be revealed within 34 days by the Cabinet Office. In the meantime, Labour and the Lib Dems can hone their attack lines for the election.
4) Household defence
By declaring that burglars “leave their human rights outside”, Cameron appeared to rewrite his party’s policy on the spot. Chris Grayling has previously denied that a Tory government would provide householders with a “licence to kill” but the Tory leader’s words appeared to offer just that. His comments won’t do him any harm with the voters, but here was an example of just the sort of Howard-style populism that Cameron was meant to mark a break with.
5) Marriage tax policy
Four years after Cameron first pledged to support marriage through the tax system in an attempt to woo the right, that’s all we have: a pledge. Cameron was candid enough to admit that he “messed up” (perhaps borrowing a line from Barack Obama) but since then he’s given us no indication of the size or degree of any tax break.
Instead, Tory policy is assumed to be whatever Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice has proposed that week. Cameron may insist that it’s the “message not the money” that matters, but to be taken seriously he must give some indication of the latter.
PS: It’s not all bad news for the Tories. UK Polling Report’s Anthony Wells analyses MORI’s 2009 data this morning and concludes: “[I]f a pattern of swing like this happened in reality it could hardly be more perfect for the Tories — tons of extra votes in the seats they need to win.”