Three years late, the Conservatives are celebrating victory in the 2010 general election. They still don’t have a majority in parliament but they believe they have won the argument. Labour forfeited its right to govern – so the story goes – by presiding over economic calamity, squandering public money on benefits and opening Britain’s borders to an army of foreigners. The remedy was a Tory government that would cut spending, reform welfare and cap immigration.
At the party’s annual conference in Manchester, David Cameron and George Osborne will say their methods are vindicated by incipient economic recovery. Some Tories concede that the truth is more complicated but there is little doubt over who is winning the politics of blame and credit. “The economic argument is not as clear-cut as we’re making out but George has played it well,” says one Conservative adviser.
The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will avoid sounding boastful at the conference. They aren’t stupid. They know that the recovery is more legible on paper than it is palpable in pockets. Bills are rising; wages aren’t. In his speech at Labour’s conference, Ed Miliband accused the Tory leader of planning an undeserved “lap of honour”.
Cameron won’t oblige with crass claims of missions accomplished. Nor will he respond directly to the charge that the Tories are presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. Downing Street knows it has to do something to help struggling households but that task will be addressed later in the year, in a series of policy announcements building up to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.
At the Tory party conference, the message will be that the Conservatives are on the side of industrious people, while Labour favours freeloaders (domestic and foreign). What excites Tory strategists is that, after three years in office, they feel they have a record to support their argument. They also feel that the party’s MPs are happy with the message and well drilled at delivering it. Effort spent at summer garden parties mending relations between No 10 and backbenchers – the “barbecue offensive” – appears to have paid off. That doesn’t mean the Conservative Party automatically does the Prime Minister’s bidding, as his defeat in the vote on military intervention in Syria proved. But a year ago, such a rebellion would have triggered leadership speculation and lurid tales of panic in the ranks. This time, the disturbance was quickly contained. Cameron wriggled out of his foreign policy humiliation within 24 hours. His spin operation has become sharper and the number of Tory MPs who want nothing more than to hurt him has dwindled to manageable proportions.
Labour has watched this transformation with dismay. The Tories can no longer be relied on to deliver a steady flow of bungles. The new ruthlessness and discipline of the Conservative machine is noted with grudging respect by shadow ministers. Tories who once despaired of the way Downing Street was run now speak in reverential tones about Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s campaign director and the man credited with sharpening the party’s sense of strategic purpose.
But there is a difference between attacking the opposition harder and governing better. There are also great gaps between what Cameron and Osborne say they are achieving and what has actually been achieved. The deficit and public debt have not been trimmed to anything like the extent that was promised in 2010. Claims to have cracked down on immigration will look shaky when the controls that restricted labour migration from Bulgaria and Romania as a condition of their EU membership are lifted in January. The government’s flagship welfare reform – Universal Credit – has shrivelled from a national revolution in the benefits system to a pilot scheme in Ashton-under-Lyne. With it has shrunk the moral authority of Iain Duncan Smith, who sold Universal Credit as an emblem of “compassionate Conservatism” – easing the path from benefits to work, not just shredding the social safety net.
Labour has waited in vain for the public to recoil at the wounds inflicted by the Chancellor’s axe. MPs on both sides note the equanimity with which their constituents have tolerated the hardships of recent years. There is a stoical acceptance of financial insecurity as a force of nature rather than a consequence of government policy. As one Tory MP in a bellwether constituency tells me: “People don’t love us but I don’t get the sense that they are desperate to get rid of us.”
Others are less relaxed. “I’d like to show George around parts of my constituency to let him see what poverty really looks like,” says one Conservative defending a marginal seat. The Tories still struggle to shed their image as a favour factory for the rich and powerful. Cameron has steadied his party’s nerves but he hasn’t established what one influential backbencher describes as “a morality behind the narrative”.
In the conference hall, Cameron will be unchallenged. He will fight the next election as Tory leader. However, in the hotel bars, the gossip will revert to the discreet beauty contest among potential contenders for the succession – Michael Gove, Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Boris Johnson, George Osborne – because Tories also know that outright victory in the next election is still a remote prospect.
The criticism that Tories habitually level against Cameron is that he lacks fixed beliefs and that he changes his political clothes to suit the weather. With the help of Lynton Crosby’s natty tailoring, Cameron has at last found a costume to match his party’s tastes. He has persuaded the Conservatives that he really is their leader but he hasn’t imprinted his own politics on them. He is secure and confident because he has found the campaign that the Tories wish they had used to win the last election. That is less than he needs to win the next one.