Nick Wood is a former press secretary to Conservative leaders William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. He now runs Media Intelligence Partners.
Conservatives should stop worrying about losing the election. Instead, they should start worrying about what they are going to do when they have won it.
After Alistair Darling’s pre-Budget report, it is almost impossible to
imagine Labour winning a fourth term in power. Just take the horrific scale of the numbers: borrowing over the next four years is projected to amount to £394 billion – more than twice Alistair Darling was predicting only eight months ago.
As The Times pointed out, only a little tongue in cheek, for that money you could extend the Jubilee Line 1200 miles to Sicily or send every child in the land under the age of 15 to Eton for 18 months.
No wonder – after a convenient pause to allow for the election – taxes are set to rise by £4 billion and public spending is to face its biggest squeeze since Labour came to power.
Yet does anyone seriously think this is going to work? Set against this skyscraper of debt, how can a “fiscal stimulus” of £20 billion make a scrap of difference. It is like trying to prop up the Empire State Building with a match-stick.
And should anyone believe Darling’s figures? He was horrendously wrong before when he predicted that the economy would grow this year and next. Why shouldn’t he be wrong again with his panglossian forecast that growth will resume in 2010 and that – laughably – the public finances will be back under control seven years from now?
The truth is anything could happen. But the smart money (if there is any left) has to be on a far longer and deeper recession than the Chancellor can bring himself to admit: job losses on the scale of the early 1980s, an avalanche of business failures and home repossessions and a debt mountain even more menacing than the Atlas conceded in his statement. The tax rises then won’t be a footling £4 billion. At this rate, we will be celebrating Tax Freedom Day on Christmas Day.
If Labour can pull off an election victory against this background, then the Tories should pack in politics and take to a monastery. Gordon Brown is like a steeplechaser faced with a series of fences equivalent to the 1967 sterling devaluation, the Winter of Discontent, the manufacturing slump of 1980/81 and Black Wednesday. Pegasus couldn’t make it.
Judging by yesterday’s papers, the Press, not known for their shockability, were genuinely shaken by Darling’s statement. It is one thing to speculate about economic calamity, quite another to have it confirmed in cold print.
Not that it matters much what the Press say or anyone else. Leftist commentators can debate the niceties of whether the desperate “tax the rich” stunt marks the end of New Labour. All this is so many angels on a pinhead. Reality in its most unforgiving guise, the red ink of a bankrupt’s balance sheet, has at last intruded upon Labour’s artfully spun dream world.
Brown has one option left – an early election. After the first wave of a tsunami strikes, the sea retreats, the beach is clear and for a little while all is calm before the final destructive phase. It is just possible he could
make a mad dash for March or April next year. But to be so bold is not in his nature – and in any case even by the spring the real economy will be suffering mightily.
But the Tories should worry. At some point in the next 18 months, they will inherit the worst legacy of any party since the war. They will have to be ruthless in pruning Brown’s client state, they will have no choice but to raise taxes higher still and they will have to find a way of ensuring that the City never again brings the country to its knees.
David Cameron has at long last put away the Blair playbook. He should take another look at how Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe stopped the rot nearly 30 years ago.