After a campaign widely derided as negative, sterile and monotonous, David Cameron sought, as he once put it, to “let sunshine win the day” at the Tories’ manifesto launch. There was no mention of Ed Miliband in his speech, with Labour usually attacked by implication. The Prime Minister spoke of his desire to offer “a good life” to voters, declaring that he “didn’t come into politics to be some high-powered accountant and just balance the books”.
One would never guess from opening the Conservative manifesto that the UK still has a £90bn deficit. Unlike the first page of Labour’s document, austerely devoted to fiscal responsibility, there is no mention of the hole in the nation’s finances.
Instead, the manifesto opens with the slightly sinister, and rather Fabian, declaration that “We have a plan for every stage of your life”. This is followed by a series of promised spending increases and tax reductions. The Tories’ great conjuring trick has been to frame this as a post-austerity manifesto when the harshest cuts are still to come.
Cameron followed his party’s weekend pledges to spend £8bn more on the NHS and to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1m with three more “retail offers” of the kind his MPs complained were lacking: the extension of Right to Buy to 1.3m housing association tenants, a doubling of free childcare from 15 hours to 30 hours (trumping Labour’s offer of 25) and a new law guaranteeing that no one working 30 hours on the minimum wage will pay income tax.
There is much detail of what the Tories would give to voters but far less detail of what they would take from them: Cameron continues to refuse to outline more than £3bn of the £12bn welfare cuts he has promised. More broadly, almost no economist believes that the Tories could simultaneously eliminate the deficit, avoid further tax rises, cut taxes by £10.4bn and outspend Labour on the NHS and childcare – no matter how successful their “long-term plan” proves.
The Conservatives’ wager, however, is that their economic reputation is robust enough to allow them to make promises that Labour could never countenance. Today they focused on framing themselves as the “party of working people”, seeking to overturn the public view of them as the “party of the rich”.
Their fate will depend on voters giving them the benefit of the doubt on both counts. The Tories believe that Labour has left it too late to rebrand itself as “the party of responsibility” and that in a fight over economic credibility there will only ever be one winner. Their confidence may well prove justified. But the Tories’ battle to be the party of the many, not the few, looks far tougher. After avoidable and toxic errors such as the abolition of the 50p tax rate and the bedroom tax, few voters are likely to be assuaged by hastily-announced giveaways. It takes years, not weeks, to cleanse political brands. To those who have all to little sunshine in their lives, after years of falling living standards, the Tories’ words will sound empty.
But Cameron’s decision to break from his party’s narrow and negative script was undoubtedly the right one. The optimism and compassion that led some voters to believe he was a different kind of Conservative leader was on display today. But that it felt so novel was evidence of the opportunities the Tories have wasted to date.