So far, the Conservative leadership has largely left the Labour Party to suffer its internal carnage. Instead, the focus has been on making use of these early months in which there is no organised opposition and the new Government’s authority is at its strongest to establish its agenda and tone.
We see the latest instance of this today in the Prime Minister’s opinion piece in The Times. In it he espouses again what have become the two slogans of majority Conservative government – identifying as the Workers’ Party and the concept of One Nation.
However, the two are not one and the same thing. There is some overlap – the idea of greater opportunity for those on low incomes, for example – but there is also the potential for some tension between them.
Cameron’s modern One Nation is somewhat patrician. Clare Foges, Cameron’s former speechwriter, referred to its themes as “sepia-coloured words: nation, duty, decency — especially decency”, and that is the tone which comes through at the start of his article when he addresses the value of security in people’s lives. Not only that, but with the National Living Wage he has decided that only by intervening in the economy can he provide such security.
By contrast, the Halfon-inspired themes of the Workers’ Party draw on Thatcherite mood music, as seen towards the end of Cameron’s piece:
‘…which is the true party of working people? Labour, who support the unions of well-paid Tube drivers and even-better-paid union bosses? Or us, the Conservatives — the ones who are on the side of the student who just wants to get to college, the nurse who just wants to get to work, the shopkeeper who just wants to get some customers through her door?’
This is liberation politics for white van man, opposed to militant strikers and celebratory of small business – a very different thing to a One Nation Government using big state tools like wage controls to sculpt society.
Ministers are banking on this dual track to appeal to very different groups of voters, in order to build the kind of Big Tent which could lock Labour out of power for a decade or more (aided, of course, by Corbynite Labour gleefully declaring that they aren’t that interested in winning anyway).
While times are relatively good, thats an internal tension in the Government’s thinking which they can probably get away with, not least because it means business can generally afford to bear the costs of One Nation policies.
But it isn’t hard to imagine how that uneasy alliance could be shaken by external events. A new economic crisis – far from impossible given recent news from the international markets – might force companies and governments to make difficult decisions once more. What will be more important then – keeping the white vans free to get on the road and the shopkeepers able to open their doors, or guaranteeing a National Living Wage to ensure security for those lucky enough to retain their jobs? Similarly, if Labour do recover their political standing one day and decide to enter a bidding war about wage levels, how far would a Conservative Chancellor be willing to go to outbid them before the considerations of affordability and productivity force a halt?
If the nation – and the Conservative leadership – is fortunate, those decisions will be far off. But we ought to think about what to do should they be forced upon us.