By Tim Montgomerie
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Four weeks ago Matthew Parris asked: Why are Tory MPs so "unbelievably lily-livered and flaky"? He was thinking of their failure to back the Chancellor's austerity measures.
He returns to the theme today, hurling his keyboard at the "perfect idiots" on the Tory backbenchers who, he says, are "economic nimbys". "They are in favour of cuts," he writes, "but nothing that affects their own votes or pet causes." His Times column continues (£):
"The Conservative Research Department has long employed an officer to tot up the costs of Labour’s miscellaneous promises and the costs implied by their complaints. It should turn its hand to the Tory Right. Defence, local A&E, Tory-led town halls, council tax, rail fares, road improvements, pensioners’ benefits … every backbencher has his list. The perfect idiots are on many levels only what our unwritten constitution encourages a constituency MP to be: counsel for the defence of Loamshire West. Fine. Carry on, Sir Bufton. But their barking for lower taxes, and higher spending should be met with an indulgent chuckle, not a sucking-of-the-teeth. They don’t merit elevation to the ranks of “the Chancellor’s critics”."
I'm not sure what Matthew Parris will make of Guy Opperman MP's column for ConHome today. Guy has just completed a tour of northern constituencies in a bid to understand why our party is struggling outside of the south. A week ago he called for much better relationship-building by Tory Associations. Today he sets out a five-point policy plan, all of them involving more public spending or lower taxes:
- Freeze Petrol and Diesel taxes until 2015
- Reject Regional Pay (earlier this week Policy Exchange had recommenmded we consider using regional pay restraint to fund northern infrastructure)
- Adopt a clear Industrial Policy
- Invest in Northern Transport Infrastructure (the subject of Lord Bates' recent Comment article)
- Deliver Broadband for the North.
Read Guy's piece.
Returning to where we started I think there are two big observations I'd make about Matthew Parris' attempt to blame Tory MPs rather than the Coalition or George Osborne for the general unhappiness about economic policy. First he's right to say that Tory MPs haven't being rushing to George Osborne's support (with one or two honourable exceptions) and he's right about the economic nimby tendency. Where he's a bit unfair is to think that there really is no alternative to George Osborne's spending policies. If the cuts had been more fairly distributed across Whitehall (eg wealthy pensioners, the aid budget, the EU contribution and the NHS had been a bit more squeezed) then cuts wouldn't have had to fall so heavily on taxpaying businesses (otherwise known as job creators) or other Whitehall departments (eg in-work benefits, the police, the armed forces, the railways). A 'fairer' distribution of cuts would have created different political problems but the distribution chosen by the Tory leadership explains why many Tory MPs (like Mark Reckless) are unhappy. There are also legitimate questions of speed. It was also going to be difficult to administer austerity for five or seven years. Deeper, earlier cuts would have increased the pain now but would have made more political sense.
There are also the question marks over whether George Osborne has done enough on competitiveness. My answer to that is a definite "no" but I also concede that he's on the right side of all of the internal Coalition arguments – whether on energy prices, aviation policy or the level of tax. The Coalition – not George Osborne, and, Mr Parris, not Tory MPs – is THE real problem.