In the current debate between mainstream and liberal conservatives, there are those on the liberal conservative side (doubtless some of them would prefer the old term “modernisers”, though the debate was never about whether the Party should modernise but how) that would like to make out that the liberal conservatives want to focus on issues such as the economy and the public services whilst the mainstream conservatives want to drag the debate back to Europe and immigration (e.g. see Ian Birrell, today). But those that styled themselves “modernisers” wanted to talk about anything but the economy! Their preferred ground was the environment and gay rights, with a dash of “localism” chucked in.
Remember Oliver Letwin, in May 2007, telling us about the two “paradigm shifts” of “Cameron Conservatism”, of which the first was “a shift from an econocentric paradigm to a sociocentric paradigm”, or Osborne, three weeks later, talking about the “Blair settlement” on the economy and public services. Some of us recall that Osborne promised to match Labour’s spending until 2010/11, a promise that ConservativeHome campaigned against being renewed.
There were those of us that always disputed that Gordon Brown’s economic framework constituted a good or robust economic paradigm, but views of that sort were most unwelcome for the first three years of Cameron’s leadership. Even once splits between the Cameroons and Brown arose in late 2008, the Conservative position was to favour Brown’s spending rises (which, remember, they had committed to matching only a year before) but to oppose his proposed temporary tax cuts – surely a policy combination that the passage of time has made seem ever more bizarre.
It was only in June 2009 that the Party finally embraced spending cuts, and even then the position was only sustained with any robustness until January 2010, when at an astonishing press conference Osborne refused five times, under questioning, to confirm that the Conservative plan was to spending more than £1.5bn less than Labour.
Having played my own part in persuading the party to switch in June 2009 and in shaping the debate thereafter, one should be wary of churlishness. It is, of course, extremely welcome that the Party changed heart on the issue of spending cuts and the policy as it stands is about as close to perfect as anything ever gets in politics. Osborne has emerged with great credit from events since mid-2009, and would be fully entitled to a wry smile at those that foolishly mocked him before.
My point is not to criticise the policy as it stands, or even, on this occasion, to criticise the political tactics/strategy involved. My point is merely that it was the “modernisers” that wanted to ignore the economy, to avoid it as an issue because they felt that Labour was too heralded, and it was those of us on what the “modernisers” would like to call the “Right” (i.e. the mainstream Conservatives) that wanted to talk about the economy. It simply isn’t true that mainstream Conservatives have ever wanted to not talk about the economy. The people that wanted to talk about fringe issues, away from the central concerns of voters, were always the “modernisers”, and it was always “the Right” (the mainstream) that insisted that we should talk about the economy and public services reform.
One understands why the “modernisers” wanted to steer debate away from the economy – the focus groups said Labour was well ahead on those issues – and I haven’t produced any arguments here that that wasn’t the correct tactic at the time. But it’s no good now trying to pretend that the economy is some kind of “moderniser” issue. It wasn’t, and it isn’t.