Analysis: Tory fightback

David Cameron has been trying to pin the blame for the economic downturn on Gordon Brown for over a year now, but the prime minister keeps wriggling away.

To a certain extent, the public do blame Brown. Consistent opinion polls have shown a small majority thinking he is at least partly to blame. My hunch is that Cameron’s message has gotten through, but that people still think the former chancellor is the best man for the job as long as the crisis continues. He appears massively confident on the subject matter, Nobel prize winners praise him and world leaders rely on him. People notice that sort of thing. But once the crisis is over, the public will probably want rid of him.

It’s an assumption Conservative strategists have made of their own accord. Briefings earlier this week indicated the party was willing to sit out the strange, positive headlines winging their way to the prime minister’s office. They noted that frenzied Liberal Democrat activity from Vince Cable – the party’s economics spokesman – had failed to turn into a poll bounce, and they were quite willing to sit back and wait for the effects of the crisis to hit the real economy, where Cameron’s main political strength – his ability to speak like a human being – would devastate his opposition.

But something has clearly changed. Perhaps it was the first two prime minister’s questions of the new parliamentary session, where Cameron and, most recently, William Hague, struggled to find a coherent message. Unable to appear entirely conciliatory and consensual, the party proved similarly incapable of launching a consistent and sustained criticism. It left them in a small grey place, losing on both fronts.

With the consensual approach adopted since the party conference failing him, Cameron has put the emphasis on corrupting Brown’s financial self-branding. He did so in a classic act of Cameronite political association, by casting “irresponsible government” as the stage in which “irresponsible bankers” operated.

“We’ve had irresponsible capitalism presided over by irresponsible government,” Cameron said. “Instead, what we need is responsible free enterprise, regulated and supported by responsible government.”

It’s a daring and potentially rich vein of criticism. It implies a sort of conspiracy, albeit one with no head, whereby Labour and the City got drunk – in President Bush’s phrase – on money and boom while ignoring all the things that sensible Conservative people pay attention to.

Cameron has watched the debate on the economy – the only subject the media cares about right now – turn leftwards. His response had previously been mixed. Calls for a clampdown on City bonuses clashed horribly with previous statements defending bankers. But today’s revealed a potentially effective defence against the tides of political opinion. The Tory leader cast Labour as naïve in the face of the market – a novice.

“New Labour took a new approach to economic and social policy,” he said. “Having previously opposed free market economics, they decided to accept it without question, seeing it as a ‘black box’ to produce ever-growing tax revenues. without properly understanding how it worked.”
It’s a superb counter to the argument that the centre-right has no ability to explain or rectify the current crisis. In a way, it’s a shadow of Brown’s conference speech urging the public to rely on his experience. Cameron can’t beat him for personal experience, but the Conservatives, he believes, can beat Labour on experience of the free market. The message is: “We understand the thing you have only recently come to accept. The market is safer in our hands because we spent the last century understanding it while you wasted time trying to destroy it.”

How much traction is there in this? Not enough to change the parameters of the debate, certainly. But that is not Cameron’s aim. The Tories don’t expect to suddenly beat Brown on the issue of the economy. Nothing Cameron says can make the public look to the centre-right at a time of economic downturn – that would contradict some fundamental political and historical laws.

The purpose of this morning’s speech was to prevent any further slippage on the issue, to create a firm baseline of Conservative responsiveness. It’s a play for time, while the financial crisis plays itself out. The Tories don’t expect to come out of it looking rosy. They don’t need to – a slip in a poll lead is still a poll lead. They just need to have answers to financial questioning, and a background hum of associating Brown with failure, not rescue. In that, this morning was successful.

Ian Dunt