Saturday, 21 March 2009

Cameron rides the Tiger...

In the past two or three days, we have begun to get some sense of the economic priorities and principles driving David Cameron and the prospective Conservative Government.

The priority, according to Cameron, is to get spiralling public debt under control and with Ernst & Young suggesting that debt could be up to £180 billion that's a reasonable premise. The worldwide economic concensus has turned away from the Brown/Obama approach of spending public money to stimulate economic activity. Countries like Germany, Australia, New Zealand and China are backing away from spending more public money in order to give initial stimulus packages a chance to succeed.

The problem for Britain of course is that years of profligacy under Brown as both Chancellor and Prime Minister have left us uniquely ill-equipped to adopt this strategy. All we can do, it seems, is to carry on spending and accumulating debt in order to avoud depression now even though that will mean inflation later.

So Cameron knows he has to get on top of the spending problem before his Government is devoured in an inflationary storm. Conservative activists have long called for deep spending cuts across all arms of Government. They believe the economic "pot of gold" can be found in the quangocracy and the "legions" of diversity managers, performance analysts and other non-jobs.

However, as the disastrous James Commission, which did so much to undermine Michael Howard's strategy in the 2005 campaign, illustrated, tracking down these savings and getting anything meaningful from them are two very different and difficult tasks.

Nonetheless, Cameron is playing it very cautious - perhaps too cautious for some of his friends - and is not offering deep spending cuts or anything likley to impact too much on the "frontline". He has clearly learnt that one way to antagonise your coalition is to start closing libraries, hospital wards and other "sacred" local amenities.

The other side of the equation is tax and here we do have a commitment to raise the tax rate for higher earners to 45%. This has also provoked some adverse comment from some of Cameron's allies who want to see tax cuts to boost deep spending cuts. Indeed, there seems no commitment at all from Cameron to reduce tax in the first term, leaving the Liberal Democrats as the only main party committed to cutting taxes.

The Cameron strategy is clear - he will put up with noises off-centre and throw his activists the occasional bone (such as leaving the EPP) - but his overall plan, like Blair in the run-up to 1997, is to offer nothing terribly radical. This stands in stark contrast to the Thatcher manifesto in 1979 which was a more radical document.

However, the circumstances of 1996-7 and 2009-10 couldn't be more different. Blair had to convince doubtful anti-Tory voters that he wasn't going to undo everything Thatcher and Major had done and especially not the post-ERM economic boom. To do that meant NOT being radical.

Cameron faces an economy in crisis and an electorate perhaps more willing to countenance the radical in terms of tax and spending. Yet Cameron has walked away from that it would seem. I wonder whether, like Blair, the primary aim is to build a "big tent" and a big majority yet in order to keep everyone in, he will not do anything too radical or divisive.

That way lies disappointment and dillusionment - just ask those who supported Tony.

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