Monday, June 29, 2009

Spooked

Extraordinary claims by David Cameron today. The Labour government has a 'thread of dishonesty running through it'. Why? Because Gordon Brown has postponed the next government spending review in order to 'cover up the truth about Labour's cuts', and is suggesting that a Conservative government would savagely cut public spending. This amounts to saying that 'black is white' and shows that the government has 'lost touch with morality'.

First of all, the government's claims that the Tories would cut public spending whilst Labour would maintain spending on key public services is fundamentally dishonest. Of course Labour will have to rein back spending, if we're facing high unemployment and a double digit deficit into the near future. But, what is so surprising about a government not wanting to promise spending cuts in an election year? If Cameron is shocked by this then I think he's in the wrong job. Maybe he should have stayed in PR, where it is well known that only the whole truth is ever spoken.

OK, that's a cheap shot. But politics is a dishonest game, of course. Governments will talk about their strengths and hide their weaknesses. It's for the opposition to smoke them out. But there is a kind of taboo in British politics about accusations of lying. You only make such accusations if a political leader has, for instance, claimed to believe Saddam Hussein had WMD when he knew that wasn't true. Not when a government has tried to make the rather obvious point that Labour is more attached to high levels of public spending than the Conservatives are likely to be.

So why the hysteria? Well, because Dave knows that he will inherit a poisoned chalice if and when he wins the election. Tories don't like raising taxes, but they will have to if swingeing cuts in frontline services are to be avoided. Winning an election and then having to cut real living standards is a recipe for a one-term government. Yet Cameron's new compassionate middle-road Conservatism is also about meeting the electorate's expectations of high quality public services, especially health and education. Something will have to give, and Cameron will come under pressure during the next year to say exactly what. Hence the nerves.

This suggests that despite the government's miserable poll ratings and inevitable defeat, New Labour has rather shifted the terrain of British politics. In the early 1980s, after the previous period of Labour government, tax cuts and spending cuts were electorally popular. Now, Cameron appears to think, they are not, despite the Daily Mail insisting over the last decade that Labour was wasting huge amounts of taxpayers' money. Maybe Labour's largesse did reach middle England after all - pity the party can't figure out a way of communicating this point.