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Cameron has already picked his message for the next election – and “cleaning up politics” isn’t it

The PM doesn’t want to talk about the ills of lobbying any more than he wants to talk about shrinking Arctic glaciers, the “big society” or other things he once said were important.

At the last election, fixing politics seemed as urgent a task as fixing the economy. The collapse of trust in parliament during the expenses scandal was a twin catastrophe to the collapse of the financial sector.

Of the two challenges, reviving the economy was supposed to be the easy bit. The Chancellor’s emergency Budget of June 2010 assumed growth this year would be between 3 and 4 per cent. The Treasury is now working to a forecast of 0.6 per cent. Instead of planning pre-election bonanzas, George Osborne is haggling with ministers over more cuts to already scarred budgets. Optimistic scenarios envisage slow recovery with the cost of living rising faster than wages. Essential public services will decline; peripheral ones will vanish.

That prospect makes it a strategic necessity for the Tories to convince people that straitened living is as good as it gets under circumstances – a toxic Labour legacy, pan-European malaise – that are beyond the present government’s control. That isn’t quite the same as embracing pessimism, which is a campaign no-no. It means presenting a Conservative vote as the path of worthy sobriety, with Labour as the route to bingeing relapse.

Tory confidence that this will work grows with every poll showing that Labour is not trusted on the economy. Conservatives can also rely on a culture of quiescence that, to the perennial frustration of the left, steers Middle Englanders away from barricades.

To finish the job of discrediting Labour, Conservative strategists must make it hard for Ed Miliband to present himself as the owner of a realistic alternative plan. One way they do that is by turning the conversation at every opportunity to things the Labour leader doesn’t look comfortable talking about, which, helpfully for Downing Street, make a long list: spending restraint, welfare, European referendums, immigration.

The device is deployed without subtlety. A lobbying scandal erupts, for instance, in which the protagonist is a Conservative MP who agrees to take money from a bogus firm and promote the interests of a Fijian dictator. The government’s response is legislation that, among other things, would limit the role of trade union finance in elections.

There is a way of rationalising this so it doesn’t sound like a non sequitur. The Lib Dems say the aim is to impose transparency on “third parties” involved in political campaigning, which is a neat but disingenuous formula for making a democratic labour movement sound like organised corruption.

Nick Clegg’s office blames “aggressive briefing” by the Tories for inflaming the situation and insists that the proposed reforms are too modest to justify Labour fury. But plainly they are a provocation. They make sure the coming argument is about Miliband’s relationship with the unions, when it might have been about, say, the relationship between lobbying firms and Downing Street advisers past and present, including the present campaign chief, Lynton Crosby.

If a policy is coated in partisan cynicism and fashioned into a weapon for hurting Labour, Westminster usually looks for Osborne’s fingerprints. “Whenever doing something to trade unions comes up in government, George is always somewhere nearby,” notes a senior government source. There is a simple reason why the Tories’ top strategists would rather sabotage political reform than lead it. Whichever way you slice the issue, the kernel is always people with money jumping the queue to get access to power and influence. Cameron and Osborne are wise enough to steer clear of that debate, knowing that their privileged backgrounds would be deployed against them and their party donors would writhe in discomfort throughout. Most of the cabinet would look pretty awkward railing against Big Money.

Besides, Cameron has his message for the next election and “cleaning up politics” isn’t it. He doesn’t want to talk about the ills of lobbying any more than he wants to talk about shrinking Arctic glaciers, the “big society” or other things he once said were important. He doesn’t even want to talk about legislating for gay marriage, which could be sold as one of his political accomplishments but isn’t, because half of his party wants him to be ashamed of it.

The Downing Street script has been stripped down to its barest essentials: tackling the deficit, cutting welfare, controlling immigration – all things opinion polls show voters want and that Labour will be portrayed as unwilling to do. Partly, this expresses the limitations imposed on Cameron by a rebellious party that would rather dream of ending coalition than govern within it. Partly, it is a symptom of the new urgency inside No 10, expressed by Crosby’s streamlining instruction to “get the barnacles off the boat”.

A shrunken agenda also matches the shallowness of Cameron’s imagination, which has frustrated his MPs and his coalition partners. Although they expected very different things, both sides once thought the Conservative leader’s complacent country-house manner concealed reforming radicalism. They have now accepted it doesn’t.

Three years into a project that was born from economic and political emergency, it is clear that the Prime Minister is uninterested in doing things very differently from the way they have always been done. He isn’t excited about transforming politics or curious about alternative ways to run an economy, although the current models of both are failing. The economy, at least, is crawling out of recession. Politics is still shrinking.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0