Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

Why Tories and Labour are into 'political cross-dressing'
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The Independent Online

Are Labour and the Tories changing places? It feels like it after a week in which Labour has looked like the millionaires' party and is engulfed by allegations of financial sleaze with potentially more devastating consequences than the tide of "Tory sleaze" which helped sweep John Major out of office in 1997.

On policy, the big two parties are increasingly indulging in what one Blair aide called "cross-dressing". David Cameron urges us to "love a hoodie", donning the 1992 garb of Tony Blair, who appears to have long forgotten one half of his "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" mantra. When John Reid unveils his Home Office fightback plan next week, it is a fair bet that he will not be urging us to love anyone.

Labour, traditionally hostile to nuclear power, embraces it as the means to secure energy supplies and combat climate change. The Tories, previously fervent advocates, say that it should be used only as a "last resort" as Mr Cameron tries to woo the green lobby.

The Tories extend their message of love to public servants, a long-standing enemy, even though they and their families have votes. "The war is over," Mr Cameron declared last month. After nine years in power, Labour ministers sometimes blame public servants for their own failings - not least at the Home Office - and demand yet more "reforms" - to the exasperation of workers already drowning in a sea of directives and targets.

On Thursday, Gordon Brown announced a new squeeze on public sector pay and Whitehall budgets. Yesterday, Mr Cameron made another "meaning of life" speech, insisting that "social growth" matters as much as economic growth and "GWB" (general well being) as much as GDP.

In other areas, the Tories match Labour. They have signed up to Labour's landmark target to abolish child poverty by 2020, but without saying how they would get there. In daring moments, they even talk, albeit vaguely, of redistributing wealth.

No wonder, perhaps, that voters struggle to spot the differences between the parties - and that their combined share of the total vote fell from 81 per cent in 1979 to 68 per cent last year.

The convergence on policy stems partly from Mr Cameron's strategy to reach out beyond the Tory core vote. He judges, correctly, that his party needs to address issues it has neglected - such as the environment, public services and the work-life balance - and does not need to bang the drum on tax cuts, immigration, Europe and a one- dimensional message on law and order.

He denies the charge that the New Tories are merely aping New Labour. They may be addressing the same issues but, he insists, will produce very different policies in line with their traditional values. That is the crucial difference between today's Tories and New Labour, which accepted huge chunks of the Thatcher agenda.

The Tory leader has a point, although we won't be able to make a judgement on it until his soft mood music is turned into hard policy in a year's time. The Tories, nicely ahead in the opinion polls, are in no hurry. "Detailed policies? You must be joking," one senior figure told me with a smile.

However, the common ground can be exaggerated and, beneath the headlines, important differences remain. An underlying theme at the next election will be a choice between "big state" solutions instinctively favoured by Labour, which believes that public services cannot be left to the vagaries of the market, and the "small state" vision of Mr Cameron, who triangulates between Labour and Baroness Thatcher by saying: "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state."

Labour's best brains have been agonising over how to puncture the Cameron bubble. It is hard to pour cold water on warm words. But Labour has now settled upon a four-pronged attack.

Mr Blair is convinced that policy detail will prove to be Mr Cameron's Achilles heel. He points out that when the Tory leader moves from vague aspirations to specifics, he gets himself in a tangle - citing his moves on a British Human Rights Act, restricting the rights of Scottish MPs to vote on "English only" issues, and his pledge, now shelved, to pull Tory MEPs out of the main centre-right group in the European Parliament.

Mr Brown, meanwhile, believes the key dividing line between the parties remains his old favourite - Labour investment versus Tory cuts. Although Mr Cameron has played down cuts in personal taxation to try to win credibility on public services, the Chancellor believes the Tories are still vulnerable because they would "share the proceeds of growth" between higher spending and lower taxes. So a "Tory cuts" message will also feature in Labour's summer offensive.

Another element will be an attempt to show that, despite Mr Cameron's repositioning exercise, the Tories still look after the interests of "the few" while Labour represents "the many".

Labour's final line of attack will be to again portray the Tory leader as a chameleon who "flip flops" on policy and changes his message to suit the audience. Mr Blair knows a thing or two about that. The two leaders, like their parties, have more in common than they choose to admit.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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