In my earlier post, I made the argument that the roots of the Conservative party's current travails lie in the failure of the leadership to really confront the big strategic questions of what they want to do with their government, and instead, replace them with a series of tactical decisions based on securing short term political advantage. It's my basic thesis that this tendency has both stored up problems for the government, and, as it is still being applied today is causing fresh problems at an increasing rate.
In a way, this links to argument that both Steve Richards and Iain Martin have made: that a politics of the short term and provisional is unsuited both to the pressures of government, and, especially, to the challenges of the next few years.
Think of it like this. The decade of general prosperity we have been through allowed politicians to apply a spoonful of sugar to any and all difficult decisions they had to make. Now there is no spoonful of sugar, so strategies reliant on them are left badly exposed. Now, I'd argue that the Labour government used the spoonful of sugar rather well: on public service reform, on education, on keeping overall tax rates low and tax credits, on infrastructure spend and so on.
Obviously, all of this was accompanied by a tactical, political dance, which now distracts columnists and political types from what went on beneath. If I say Damian or Alistair, you probably know who I mean. If I say Conor and Paul C, you probably don't. Fundamentally, the task of the New Labour press team was to identify sore spots, and either prevent further self inflicted wounds or apply the cooling unguent of money. (Read Damian's excellent account of the Budget process, and imagine how much less well such a process works if overall tax takes were plummeting)
So I'd argue that not only are the Tories reliant on a strategy that is unsuited to the current times, but the accumulated errors of their past strategy mean they cannot even deliver that strategy reasonably competently.
Not only are Cameron and Osborne reading the wrong script, as Iain Martin puts it, they are reading it so badly.
The big mistake
Up to 2008/09 the Conservatives were following a reasonably effective political narrative. They hadn't really confronted the big policy divisions in the Conservative party, but by effectively matching Labour's spending plans, they were able to effectively promise prizes for all. He wasn't always successful in this – even in 2005 Tim Montgomerie was using the "And" theory of conservatism to demand a little more red meat for the Tory right. Rather than being shrugged off, such an ambiguous position was repeatedly embraced.
We saw this process on grammar schools, on welfare policy, on the NHS. It was possible, the Leadership argued, to support radical public service reform, a limited state and progressive goals all at once, because there was going to be the money to pay for it all. As a result by 2010, even a Tory critic like Montgomerie was arguing that "The manifesto is much more the latest installment of Cameron's simultaneous attempt to persuade the left that he is different from Thatcher, and to persuade the right that he remains rooted in historic, Burkean conservatism." .
That strategy, though riddled with internal contradictions likely to be exposed in office, was politically workable. However, it stopped being politically workable in 2008, when suddenly the easy decade came to a definitive stop. Labour's strategy was the most obviously exposed by this, but the Conservative leadership found themselves in an equally awkward position. Having gambled on detoxifying the Tory brand through moving close to New Labour positions, they were confronted by the apparent collapse of the New Labour political and economic model. George Osborne was under political pressure, with some calling for him to be moved from the Shadow Chancellor job.
In response, they entirely abandoned their strategy.
At the time, this looked masterful. The Labour government were struggling, the economy was tanking, and the Tories were now free to attack them with everything they had. The only consequence was that the Tories were now committed to a policy of deeper spending cuts in government, no matter what Labour's chancellor actually proposed. this was, I submit, a colossal strategic error. Labour were caught on the horns of a dilemma. To get out of recession, Labour needed to spend. It was also clear that in the medium term, this would mean balancing cuts. Labour really did not want to disclose what those cuts might mean.
If the Tories had chosen to match Labour spending plans, they could have run on a mantle of trust, honesty and competency, arguing that spending cuts were needed, and that only they would deliver the tough medicine well. Labour would then both had to define it's own cuts agenda, which would have been extremely painful, and also been unable to attack the Conservatives for damaging the economy. In effect, David Cameron could have run a Tory version of the campaign Nick Clegg ran, thanks to Vince Cable.
Despite failing to win the election, the Tories were lucky in their rivals. Labour ran a truly dreadful campaign, and only managed to land a few effective punches in the final days, while Nick Clegg had a collapsed souffle of an election, and then failed to make any sort of case for his economic policy in the coalition negotiations. The Conservatives were in government, their economic policy intact.
Unfortunately, this economic policy locked them in to two or three years of sustained bad news. Budgets would have to be cut. Resources reduced. Living standards would have to fall. Growth would likely be anemic. Oddly, there was a moment in which the case for this could be made. It's needed, the coalition argued. We have to take the tough decisions. We have to do the right thing. The public listened, and broadly, agreed.
Yet here again, the preference for tactics and short term political advantage, the desire to manage the Conservative party rather than confront it caused problems for the leadership. The right wanted tax cuts, and deregulation. So the Conservatives leadership hinted their assent. Then, as the economy struggled, they could not fall back on a "stick with it" argument. They couldn't argue that these hard yards were essential. Instead, they had to try to find a solution to their party's desire for the sort of distinctively conservative policies they had hinted they favoured. Nor could they tell the Tory right to wait, because by not winning the election (by not confronting the Tory right) they had not earned the power to do so.
Further, and even more inexplicably, when the times were good for their position, the leadership went out of their way to denigrate those they had cosseted in opposition, making it clear how much more congenial the Liberal Democrats were to the mouth-breathers of the Tory right. Again, this sense of short term advantage, and political solutions over policy fights comes to the fore.
Making common cause with the LibDems makes a huge amount of sense politically. I've said before that a Conservative-LibDem permanent alliance is a great fear of mine. But to make it work, the Conservative party had to be entirely bought on board, either be persuasion or by the clear winning of an argument. Instead, the leadership briefed, hinted, and insinuated and in doing so, aggravated.
That might have even made sense if the Leadership had taken on the right and won in opposition, but the Carswells, the Bone's, the Dorries', the Redwood's could all remember times when they had been prayed in aid, and now without victory, their leadership was blatantly preferring their coalition partners.
Such behaviour created resentment, and that resentment had to be bought off, when, predictably, times got harder for a government implementing austerity.
So George Osborne found himself standing up as an economy stagnated, and announcing a tax cut for the rich that he insisted was actually a tax increase for the rich, alongside various tax cuts of small and provisional types, paid for by the sort of stealth taxes he had decried so often in opposition.
This then, entirely predictably, fell apart. By apparently cutting taxes, Osborne was overturning the "Hard yards" argument. But he didn't have the money to pay for such tax cuts, and he couldn't back out of his deficit reduction plans, so he had to try and squeeze in bits and pieces, each of which caused an individual pip to squeak.
Nor would the Tory right come to fight for him, because they could see it wasn't really a dash for growth through tax cuts, while the LibDems were perfectly happy to see their coalition partners being stuck in the clarts for once.
At each turn, the Conservative leadership have chosen tactics over strategy. they've chosen political management over political argument. this didn't really work as politics, but relied on the failure of the government. Even with such a failure, it then provided only an incoherent and self-contradictory path for government.
Cameron and Osborne are failing now. They may yet be rescued by the global economy, or by fear of the alternative, or by the hard work and entrepreneurial and social spirit of the British people. Either way, they should provide an object lesson to the Labour party in how not to prepare for government in tough times.