Last night’s Westminster Hour on Radio 4 became the latest mainstream media outlet to discuss ConservativeHome’s hares versus tortoises theory. The Times’ Danny Finkelstein (the newspaper columnist closest to the Osborne-Cameron circle) debated The Telegraph’s Iain Martin. It’s well worth a listen.
Danny spent quite a bit of time knocking down straw men – the voters don’t want large, unexplained spending cuts, he said (although noone is advocating them) and we can’t refight the last two elections (who is suggesting that we do?) but his comparison with Blair in 1997 was most misleading.
Danny seems stuck in the mid-1990s. We imagine him going home and watching This Life DVDs and listening to Portishead. Like Blair in 1997, he said, we need to offer reassurance, reassurance, reassurance.
There is, of course, a lot of truth to what he said. The reason we chose hares versus tortoises was because the reassurance or caution v boldness debate is real. Although ConservativeHome favours a more hare-like approach we are willing to concede that the wait-and-see strategy has a lot of validity (and, as Danny says, the tortoise did win in Aesop’s fable).
Using Blair’s 1997 strategy to advocate caution on tax’n’spend and in other key policy areas is questionable, however, for two main reasons:
- Voters were willing to accept large increases in the state in 1997. Now they’ve seen massive increases and for little return. Polling from the TaxPayers’ Alliance points to the changed mood on tax and spend.
- Labour only had to beat the Tories. Blair was the principal beneficiary of anti-Tory sentiment. The Conservative situation is different today. We can’t just rely on Labour failure. We need something a lot more special because we also have to oust a lot of LibDems, overcome an electoral system that is tilted heavily against us and to energise the many voters turned off by the Blair years. Reassurance alone won’t tackle those factors. Bolder initiatives like the IHT cut will be required.
Finally: Although Blair reassured on many economic issues there was also a boldness to his overall presentation. Voters saw him representing something radically different from the Thatcher-Major Tories. Social justice was core to the New Labour pitch. Voters don’t yet have a clear idea of what the Tories offer. There’s still time to develop a bigger narrative and bolder policies but let’s discuss what they might be.
PS Iain Dale thinks that ConservativeHome may be setting up a false debate. Iain should talk to his colleagues at The Telegraph. At that newspaper’s highest levels there is a strong belief that the Conservative Party should be much bolder. It is a live discussion amongst MPs. I was careful last week to describe the debate as "gentle" and "not personal". This isn’t a split but a grown-up discussion about the pace of Project Cameron. The debate is real and Iain of all people should support the grassroots joining in that debate.