The shadow of the Nasty Party hangs over the Tories again

From Theresa May on immigration to Jeremy Hunt on tax credits, senior Conservatives are ruining the leadership's attempts to sell the party as occupying the "common ground". 

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It’s tempting to dismiss branding as the last refuge of the scoundrel – a job for someone who wants a six-figure salary in exchange for wafting around with swatches of fabric, telling companies to drop the capital letters from their names to look trendy. But, crudely, a brand is a powerful thing.

It has been 24 years since Gerald ­Ratner made his infamous off-the-cuff comment about his jewellery business but what do you think of when you hear the word “Ratners”? If you’re old enough to remember 1991, I bet it’s just one word: crap. (Or maybe two: “total crap”, the exact phrase he used to describe one of his products.) That adjective nuked his company’s brand and it shut 330 shops the next year.

Ratner’s problem was that he had made the worst sort of gaffe: he said something out loud that most people already subconsciously believed to be true. The word “crap” stuck to his brand and turned people off. They could pride themselves on buying jewellery at low prices when the accompanying reduction in quality remained unspoken but they refused to be associated with overt cheapness.

There’s a moral here for the Conservative Party. Its brand is currently strong – the conference slogan “Security, Stability, Opportunity” is a clear statement of Tory values – but there are enduring weak spots, places where an attack will always leave a mark. The most obvious is the one identified by Theresa May in 2002 when she warned: “There’s a lot we need to do in this party of ours. Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us – the Nasty Party.”

That phrase stuck because people already believed it. Even those who voted Conservative during the 1990s often did so for pragmatic reasons, rather than with pride. “It may be selfish,” a focus group member once told the Labour pollster Philip Gould, “but I’m not going to vote Labour to get a job for someone in Newcastle. I don’t suppose he’d think about me.” At that time, nastiness was woven into the Tory brand and since then the party’s most successful politicians have tried to transmute it into toughness, a willingness to take hard decisions, a contrast with Labour, which could be portrayed as “soft” on the undeserving.

Unfortunately, the underlying perception can be offset but never erased. That makes it all the more astonishing that, over conference week, several senior Tories have gone full-throttle Nasty Party.

Bizarrely, given her semi-coinage of the term, Theresa May is the most obvious example. Her speech to conference on 6 October misrepresented research by her own department into immigration, as she asserted: “At best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero.” “Close to zero” is a helpfully vague non-number, but the actual figure suggested by University College London researchers last year was £20bn (the net amount contributed to the UK economy by recent European migrants, by far the biggest group, between 2001 and 2011). If that is May’s definition of “close to zero”, be glad she’s not chancellor, or giving you an estimate for fixing your boiler.

The speech contained other sleights of hand about immigration, such as this: “We know that, for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.” We might “know” it – in the sense of instinctively believing that it sounds like the kind of thing that might be true – but that doesn’t make it accurate. A 2014 Home Office report into the impact of immigration put it like this: “There is relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy is strong.” As James Kirkup noted in the Telegraph (where he called the speech “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible”), aren’t we always being told that the economy is strong right now?

The only possible conclusion is that May’s speech was blithely unconcerned with facts and the Home Secretary has swapped her much-discussed kitten heels for a shapely, leopard-print dog whistle. If George Osborne was moving to the squishy centre, why not sew up the nasty vote?

It would have been the most depressing spectacle of the week, were it not for the comments by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, at a fringe meeting a day earlier. Withdrawing tax credits was an important “cultural signal”, he said, adding: “Are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in a way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in a way that Americans are prepared to work hard?” Yes, families on low wages are too hung up on footling concerns such as a minimum wage and statutory maternity leave provision, which their grafting compatriots overseas gladly forgo. Hunt inevitably claimed that he had been misinterpreted by the beastly left-wing media (presumably no relation to the beastly right-wing media that Jeremy Corbyn often complains about). “There was never a suggestion that people don’t work hard enough,” he said afterwards.

Even if that’s true, Hunt – and Theresa May, and any of their colleagues who are tempted to join them in toughening up their rhetoric – should be careful. “Jeremy Hunt thinks you don’t work hard enough” is the kind of mud that sticks, particularly when junior doctors and their professional organisations are popping up left, right and centre to denounce the new NHS contracts the government is imposing. It plays to an existing perception. It punches a bruise.

Perhaps people don’t mind a little bit of nastiness in their politicians but, like Ratners customers, few will want that weakness openly acknowledged. There is a simple lesson: if the Tories don’t want to be tagged as the Nasty Party again, they have to be twice as nice as Labour.

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article appears in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis