Much of politics is about managing expectations.
As the Lib Dems have been demonstrating since 2010, if you over-promise then you are likely to be punished when you under-deliver. Their poll woes are the stuff of nightmares for any party, which is why sensible politicians are normally quite careful about the consequences of what they say.
Let’s compare two policy stories that reared their heads over the weekend.
The first is the international education rankings, known as PISA. Michael Gove rightly made great play of British schoolchildren falling behind those in other countries when they figures were last released in 2009. Now, the Times reports, the new PISA rankings show little improvement.
The Government’s reaction to such news is inevitably dependent on Gove’s past comments. Had he claimed the 2009 figures represented errors Labour made in 2008, or promised to turn them round immediately the Conservatives got into power, then he would now be in trouble.
But, being a clever man, he made neither of those mistakes. He has always talked about Labour having eroded the rigour of the education system over their 13-year stretch in power, and he has always been frank that turning the system round will take time.
That’s why he hasn’t been monstered in today’s press – the headlines are blunt, but he still has the credibility to point out that kids PISA studied had spent almost their whole lives under Labour education policies. It’s clearly true that even if a full reform of the education system were possible in three years, the first cohort of pupils who are fully educated by Govian principles won’t leave school until the 2020s.
Being cautious in Opposition, rather than squeezing every drop of advantage out of every angle, has paid dividends a few years down the line.
Now consider the Conservative Party’s message on interest rates. At the weekend, CCHQ released “5 graphs that show how we’re helping you and your family“. Most were fine – more jobs, lower income tax, frozen fuel duty and so on – but one boasted of “Keeping mortgage rates low”.
This is risky.
For a start, low interest rates may be good for borrowers but they are bad for savers. There’s as much chance of this annoying older voters as there is that it will inspire younger people, and we know which group turns out to vote in higher numbers.
But the real problem is that the boast is a hostage to fortune.
If you take the credit for low interest rates, then you will take the blame when they eventually rise. If Conservative ministers controlled interest rates, then maybe they could at least try to head off that circumstance – but they don’t, the rate is completely out of their hands. Instead, they are at the mercy of the Bank of England.
This is the Gove lesson in reverse – we would be better off releasing “4 graphs that show how we’re helping you and your family” than issuing an extra one which puts us in a tight spot if the Bank decides to raise rates next year or the year after.
I doubt that George Osborne would welcome having a Tory graph waved at him by Ed Balls when he tries to point out that interest rates aren’t under his control. The best way to prevent that happening is not to make such dubious claims in the first place.