Did you see those new Tory posters yesterday? Did you? The ones with the ten foot high picture of Mr Cameron, his moon face rising majestically over a thousand billboards while san serif text austerely proclaims “We can’t go on like this. I’ll cut the deficit, not the NHS“.
Now, as a former third rate adman, I disliked these posters. Putting the word “Cut” in a poster about the NHS is rarely a good idea, “we can’t go on like this” sounds like the bitter end of a relationship, not a courtship. More importantly, the message – that the deficit will be cut but not by cutting the NHS – is confusing at best, and completely incoherent at worst.
The Tory campaign begs the question – How will Mr Cameron cut the deficit? Will he cut the deficit by not protecting spending on defence or by not recognising marriage in the tax system? Will the education poster read “WE CAN’T GO ON LIKE THIS. I’LL CUT THE DEFICIT BY CUTTING SCHOOLS FUNDING”?
Of course not. Therein lies the problem for the Conservative party. They wish to proclam their toughness, yet also hide from the consequences of fiscal austerity by promoting tenderness. They wish to be flinty eyed and caring at the same time. This is why the Cameron photo looks slightly odd. Cameron’s photographer has tried to capture him looking angry, yet hopeful, stern, yet cuddly, compassionate, yet axe wielding. It looks, and feels, odd. Off key. Jarring.
For the last four years, Cameron has proclaimed his faith in the “and” theory of conservatism. You can have conservative policies and progressive ends, lower tax and better services, tax cuts and a pony for every child.
This has allowed him to appear, if not all things to all men, then at least multi faceted – caring yet tough minded. Hopeful, yet purse lipped. (It has also – no small benefit this- allowed him to manage his own party easily, stressing each side of the equation in turn as the political winds shift)
We are no longer in an “and” era. As Mr Cameron himself has said this is a time for tough choices. Yet Mr Cameron’s posters make clear he now wishes to stand for both the hopeful optimism of the “and theory of conservatism” and tough choices of the audit book.
Posters, in the grand scheme of things, matter little. I make so much of these, because I suspect they dramatise Cameron’s achilles heel – the gap between what he proclaims are his values and what he actually wishes to pay for.
I believe this gap will derail Cameronian conservatism. The only question is whether it does so in the election campaign or in office.
Today the distance between rhetoric and funding is found in his language on equality and his inheritance tax proposals, his approach to welfare (where he embraces Wisconsin style reform but appears to believe such reform will cut, not increase, costs) and today in both his policy on the NHS and on marriage tax benefits.
It even extends to the area of policy I have most sympathy with him on – schools, where the budget implications of creating spare capacity in the education system are not so much ignored as consigned to the memory hole.
These gaps represent a real, and dangerous, failing in the Cameron political project. Yesterday we saw the first inklings of the danger for the Tories.
David Cameron went on the radio to deny Labour’s claims that he would increase the deficit by cutting tax for married couples. Caught in the gap between his rhetoric on marriage and the limits of his pocketbook, he twisted uneasily, claiming that he would “definitely hope” to reduce such taxes but couldn’t say when or by how much. When he got back to the office, his team deleted the hope, but kept the uncertainty about when and how.
At the same time, the Tory health team were busy denying reports that their manifesto had dumped expensive pledges made in earlier times. See. There’s the gap.
So how should Labour handle this?
Obviously the first requirement is to be clear ourselves about what we protect and what we don’t. I think supporting industrial investment, education, frontline services, defence and police is the right strategy.
Second, in our approach to the Conservatives, I favour mockery. The conservative stategy can be caricatured as the belief that we should all be eating gruel, but thanks to the magic of Cameron’s progressive ends this gruel will taste like caviar.
In the end, we know who’ll get the gruel, and who the caviar.