Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Retoxifying the Tory brand

David Cameron (above) has made a political career out of being 'not Conservative' - or, at least, not like those nasty Conservatives his pollsters and spin doctors warned him about. The British folk memory associates the Thatcher era with mass unemployment, with the poll tax, and with 'cuts' to the welfare state and public spending (even though precious little of the latter were actually achieved).

Cameron's whole historical appeal has been: I'm not like this. 'Detoxification', it's called.

But recent events all threaten to unravel all that good work. Cosying up to News International and Rupert Murdoch in order to get elected. Re-organising the NHS after promising to leave it alone. Subjecting the same service to a teeny, tiny real terms cash increase that it's never had to suffer - ever before (and which might turn out to be a cut after all, if inflation stays high) Presiding over a sharp rise in unemployment - particularly youth unemployment, that tragic and unnecessary waste of hope and talent. Taxing an axe to the welfare state - including the middle class welfare state of Child Benefit payments for the relatively wealthy. Raising flat taxes that fall on the poorest hardest.

Leave aside the efficacy or wisdom of any of these measures. Are they really good politics? Harold Wilson spent years building Labour up as the 'natural party of government', which knew how to manage a mixed economy alongide the unions and the nationalised industries. When it all came apart, in the November 1967 devaluation of sterling, he was left ideologically naked in the storm. Labour posed again as the party of fiscal rectitude and hard-nosed economic self-interest again in the 1990s and 2000s, only to see retoxification take hold when the banking system threatened to collapse and the public came (wrongly) to believe that the Government had 'overspent'.

Labour has retoxified itself twice since the Second World War. Are the Conservatives about to follow suit?

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