“We overshot the runway,” one Conservative minister admitted this week as he explained the over-exuberance when the economy returned to growth last month. David Cameron and George Osborne were careful to avoid complacency. They know full well that the public are not feeling the recovery yet, and chose their words carefully, saying the economy is “turning a corner”.
But they now believe they erred a little on the side of optimism because they handed Labour the opportunity to switch from the deficit to “the cost of living crisis”. Labour duly repeated at every turn that prices have risen faster than wages in 38 of the Coalition’s 39 months in power.
So the Conservative decided to use their Manchester conference to get the balance right. It is a difficult act. They naturally want some credit for the recovery. But they do not want voters to feel “job done” because they might also feel it is safe to vote Labour in 2015. Mr Cameron retreated one notch in his speech yesterday, saying the economy is “beginning to turn the corner” and insisting: “This isn’t job done, it’s job begun.” This tees up one of the oldest slogans in the election handbook: “Let us finish the job.” We will hear it a million times from the Tories before the 2015 election. The Conservatives have also revived another of their favourite tunes as their answer to the living standards question – tax cuts (eventually).
Tory strategists talk a lot about the 1992 election, when John Major, in difficult economic times, won an election against a Labour Party led by Neil Kinnock saddled with policies to spend more and raise taxes. The Tories believe Mr Miliband’s “anti-business” tilt to the left at Labour’s conference gives them a chance to re-run their 1992 campaign. They won against an unpopular Leader of the Opposition who saw his opinion poll lead melt away when voters had to decide who they trusted to run the economy.
Mr Miliband calculates that the world – and the British public— have moved on since 1992. Although the Tories denied it, his pledge to freeze energy prices if Labour wins in 2015 spooked them and set the agenda for their own conference.
Mr Cameron has a second balancing act to perform. The other ghost at his party’s Manchester feast was Ukip. Some Tories wanted him to harden his line on Europe to woo natural Conservative voters who have defected to Nigel Farage’s party. Instead, he ignored Ukip and targeted centre ground voters, people who might well have voted for Tony Blair and who want “a strong market economy and decent public services,” as Mr Osborne told a fringe meeting. The Tories believe this group will be unimpressed by what they call Mr Miliband’s “lurch to the left.”
Yesterday’s speech suggests Mr Cameron will not chase Ukip. “He is not going to pander to the ‘stop the world, I want to get off’ tendency,” one Cabinet minister said. “He is a compassionate Conservative, a centrist, who will talk about the future.”
The Tories hope that, if voters do not trust Mr Miliband and Ed Balls to run the economy, they will not trust them to deliver specific “cost of living” promises like the energy price freeze.
The Tories will not lose sleep if Mr Cameron’s speech is seen as sober and a bit boring. They will ask voters to make “a grown-up choice” about which party has a “serious plan” for Britain’s recovery phase. This choice will probably decide the 2015 election.