The political dust-up between Philip Hammond and Patrick McLoughlin reported in this morning’s Sun highlights two competing theories of what a Party should do when confronted with that rare creature, a seemingly surefire victory.
Hammond, as the once-and-presumably-future Chancellor, wants to use the leeway afforded by Labour’s weakness to win with a mandate to take tough decisions.
This involves jettisoning popular but expensive policies such as the pensions triple-lock and the no-tax-rises guarantee, which Hammond has said ‘tie his hands’ when it comes to tackling the nation’s financial challenges.
As Party Chairman, McLoughlin’s role is to try to hit Labour as hard as possible and win the largest majority he possibly can, to which end he’s clearly trying to muddy the waters over the Tories’ tax intentions.
His suggestion that the manifesto will be for Cabinet to decide probably hasn’t been true since the days of Jim Callaghan, but it may yet reassure voters unfamiliar with the nuances of the British constitution.
But whilst not all Philip Hammond’s ideas are good ones – whacking new taxes and ‘rights’ on self-employed people looks a lot like an unimaginative Treasury trying to force new patterns of work into old moulds it knows how to tax – in general his is probably the wiser course.
The size of a mandate is less important than what you do with it. If the Conservatives don’t use this election to free themselves from expensive policies, such as the tax lock or NHS ringfencing, which hinder efforts to close the deficit then most likely they never will.
But there’s a caveat: this election is also an opportunity to return Conservative MPs in parts of the country where they’ve been thin on the ground for a generation (or several SNP generations).
Delivering strong results in Scotland, Wales, and the North will be important if the Prime Minister is to lead a genuinely ‘one nation’ Government through the Brexit negotiations, as will winning over voters from age groups and social brackets where the Tories are traditionally weak.
This means that whilst Hammond’s path of using this election to break free of popular but unworkable policies is good in principle, the party should remain wary of some of his ideas. It won’t win over the working class long-term with ‘Spite van man’ headlines.