Andrew Grice: Labour identifies chinks in the Tories' armour

Inside Politics
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The Independent Online

Labour rediscovered the class war at its annual conference in Brighton this week. It may have been more subtle than the top-hatted "Tory toffs" version which backfired so spectacularly at last year's Crewe and Nantwich by-election. But it was back.

Not only were the Tories portrayed as mad axemen with a glint in their eye as they prepare to cut public spending (voters agree, according to Labour's private polling) they were also associated with greedy bankers and the discredited free market philosophy which led to the financial crisis (a rewriting of history given Labour's sucking up to the City).

Gordon Brown told the conference that he was from "an ordinary family in an ordinary town" and that his parents could not easily have afforded to put their children through private schools. He didn't mention David Cameron. But he didn't need to.

The attacks on "Tory toffs" and greedy bankers cheered the Labour troops – and they certainly needed some cheering. Any army needs to know its enemy. Labour left Brighton at least determined to make a fight of it, rather than lie down and die.

I suspect the voters don't care where Mr Cameron went to school. They know he relied heavily on the NHS when his late son Ivan was ill. Yet, for the first time, I sense that the Labour attacks might hit home because they are now linked to policy as well as personalities.

The Tories leave themselves wide open to Labour's charge of being "a party for millionaires" because they have retained a policy of raising the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m (and £2m for married couples). That would mean handing £200,000 to the 3,000 wealthiest estates and not helping 96 per cent of them.

Ironically, George Osborne's announcement of the policy revitalised the Tories at their conference two years ago, which stopped Mr Brown calling a general election he would have almost certainly won.

Now it is a handicap, validating Labour's claim to represent the "mainstream majority" while the Tories look after the "privileged few". The Tories insist it remains popular with a much bigger group of aspirational voters, and that it would not be implemented until the end of a four- or five-year parliament. Despite that, when the shadow Chancellor addresses this year's Tory conference on Tuesday, he should dump it. There are other chinks in the Tories' armour. Mr Cameron remains wedded to tax cuts for married couples. He hints at reversing the 50p top rate of income tax on earnings above £150,000 from next April (more ammunition for Labour's class warriors). He promises real-term rises in the health budget. These run the risk of confusing the voters when the Tories' main pitch is to put the country back on its feet and clear up the mess they would inherit from Labour. Voters are tired of being told they can have their cake and eat it. Taxes will surely rise whoever wins the election, so talk of cutting them seems out of place.

All the same, Mr Cameron can travel to the Manchester conference in good spirits. Yes, he would love the cushion of a 45 per cent Tory rating in the opinion polls, rather than its 40 per cent average. But he didn't lose much sleep over Labour's show in Brighton. He judged that the party was talking to itself rather than the country (a view shared by some Blairites).

The Tory leader is determined not to make the same mistake. Of course, his party will spend part of the time attacking Labour. After establishing the "debt crisis" in the public's mind, he wants to get Labour's "jobs crisis" on the map (since unemployment will rise even when economic growth resumes).

But Mr Cameron knows his party cannot spend next week rubbishing the other side. His team tells me the Tories will unveil bold and radical policies. This follows a heated internal debate in which some argued the party should say very little about what it intends to do. "We are not going to play safe," one insider said yesterday.

We should not expect an A-Z of where the Tories would cut spending. They may identify some savings but want to see the colour of Labour's cuts in next month's pre-Budget report.

While Mr Cameron is largely following Labour's pre-1997 playbook, he is sceptical about copying its "pledge card" of five key promises. He does not believe "some specific retail offer to sell to each person on the doorstep" would win people over. He thinks voters are sceptical about promises by all politicians, and want to know the Tories have the right broad approach.

I am not so sure. I suspect the reason the Tories have not "sealed the deal" is that people haven't a clue what they stand for. Whether he likes it or not, Mr Cameron needs a pledge card.