David Cameron’s spokesman brusquely dismissed John Major’s comments on social mobility yesterday, declaring that “what counts is not where you come from but where you are going”.
Major told a Conservative association dinner in South Norfolk: “In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.”
But in his response to the former PM, Michael Gove struck a markedly different tone, telling The World At One: “He’s right. It’s an inescapable fact.”
A fact it is, but one that Gove, the adopted son of an Aberdonian fishmonger (he was state-educated before winning a scholarship to the private Robert Gordon’s College), is more comfortable acknowledging than Cameron. In that regard, it’s worth highlighting a notable passage in Rachel Sylvester’s fine column on Major and Cameron today: “To the frustration of other senior Tories, including Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have not done nearly enough since 2010 to counter the prejudice that the Conservatives are on the side of the few rather than the many. Indeed they have reinforced it by cutting the top rate of tax for the wealthiest, a deeply damaging symbolic change, while reducing benefits for the poor.”
The Tories’ blue collar modernisers were dismayed when the Tories’ only response to Ed Miliband’s living wage plans was to (falsely) claim that they would increase government borrowing. Robert Halfon (who recently argued on The Staggers in favour an energy windfall tax) warned: “We mustn’t make the same mistake the Conservatives made ten years ago in opposing the minimum wage. We mustn’t get ourselves in the position of again being against this. That would be a disaster for the party.”
In a piece for the NS in August, Guy Opperman similarly argued: “Britain is a country in which some workers earn so little that the government has to step in and provide aid. That is the system of tax credits we have; a subsidy by any other name and a £4bn one at that. How and why did we let it become acceptable for a full-time job not to pay enough to live on? The living wage isn’t just a wonkish idea – it’s the political world catching up with many Britons’ reality…It may just be the old socialist in me but when did it become a hindrance rather than a duty for a business to look after its employees?”
Rumours persist that the government will eventually announce plans for a significant increase in the minimum wage, but with the election now less than 18 months away, the Tories are short of time to detoxify their brand.