Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Beckham, Toynbee and the Tory view of poverty
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The Independent Online

David Beckham can relax on one score as he contemplates a move from Real Madrid. If he returns to Britain, the man who earns a reported £25m a year will not pay a higher rate of income tax than someone earning £37,000.

Our politicians tend to cite the former England captain when pressed in media interviews about the gap between the rich and poor. "It is not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money," Tony Blair declared on BBC2's Newsnight in 2001. Yesterday, David Cameron told Radio 4's Today programme: "I don't think we are going to make the country a happier or better place by capping David Beckham's salary."

Although the two main parties may sound the same, an important change to the political landscape happened this week. Giving the Scarman lecture yesterday, Mr Cameron said: "We understand that a strong society means moving forward together, no one left behind, fighting relative poverty a central policy goal."

It was a sea change for the Tories, who have previously focused on absolute poverty. The difference might sound arcane but the Tory leader explained: "Poverty is relative - and those who pretend otherwise are wrong. We must think in terms of an escalator, always moving upwards, lifting people out of poverty."

The speech will make Tories already uncomfortable with the party's direction feel even more twitchy. The Cameroons denied he was renouncing Thatcherism - but he was. "Trickledown economics is not working," he said.

Tory hackles had already been raised on Wednesday when the MP Greg Clark said the party should adopt the imagery of the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee rather than Winston Churchill, who spoke of a safety net below which no one should fall. Mr Clark did not endorse Toynbee's views and was surprised by the media frenzy he created. While right-wing newspapers did their best to whip up a "backlash," Mr Clark's comparison worked as it drew attention to the Tories' U-turn.

Mr Cameron was not picking a fight with his party's right wingers, who seem to regard even talking about poverty as a lurch to the left and a signal that the Tories are about to "soak the rich.". Neither is true, but Mr Cameron judges that the Tories cannot leave the poverty field to Labour.

Labour deserves credit for lifting 700,000 children out of poverty and setting ambitious targets to halve child poverty by 2010 and abolish it by 2020. But the Tories sense an opening because although Labour has helped people just below the poverty line, it has done little for the bottom 10 per cent in society. Ministers are now targeting a hardcore underclass estimated at one million.

The Tories argue that paying more in benefits will not lift these people out of poverty. Their policy review will propose a major shift towards tackling the root causes of deep poverty, such as alcohol and drug problems, and poor education and housing. The Tories want to see a much bigger role for charities and voluntary groups. Mr Cameron doesn't want a return to Victorian Britain. But he does sense a tempting dividing line for the next election between a Labour Party that favours top-down, state solutions and a Conservative Party which believes the answers must come from "society, not the state".

Forget the ritual Labour attacks on Mr Cameron's initiative on poverty. Privately, sensible ministers worry about his latest incursion on to Labour's turf. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown acknowledge the danger: they do not want the next election to be a battle between a "Big Brother" Labour government and a smaller state Tory one. The Cameroons' strategy looms into view: a big state, big spending and higher taxes aren't working. But the Tory leader will need to accompany his soft words with hard detail.

He may struggle to convince the public that the voluntary sector can guarantee the universal provision to the poor that can be delivered by the state. Where is the money going to come from, if not the Government? Where are the Tory policies to abolish child poverty by 2020? If the very poor are a priority for the Tories, why do they still promise eventual tax cuts?

If Mr Brown can persuade people that his vision is one of an enabling state, then they may prefer the devil they know to a leap into the Tory dark.

What the parties say about poverty will matter, but the election is much more likely to turn on the personal battle between the two would-be prime ministers and the dividing line Mr Brown would prefer - between their respective policies on tax and spending.