Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Tribalism is still a stain on the Tories' image
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The Independent Online

First, the good news for David Cameron. The Conservative Party brand is no longer regarded as "contaminated" by the voters, despite the attempt to revive the golden era of Tory sleaze by Derek Conway, the MP who paid his two sons from the public purse as researchers while they were at university.

When the Conway affair erupted, a cloud of gloom descended on the Tory leadership, which feared that its sterling work in "decontaminating" the brand was about to be undone. To their relief, it hasn't happened. The party's private polling shows that people think that most politicians are either corrupt or useless. That is why the Tory leader went on the offensive over MPs' expenses at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday.

It looked much better on television than from my perch above the Commons chamber. Mr Cameron's positioning was clear: he is the new broom who will sweep the stables clean, the change candidate who will portray Gordon Brown as the defender of an old, discredited politics.

Now the bad news from the Tories' polling: the voters' doubts about them are encapsulated by the phrase: "But who would they govern FOR?" This is not a green light for Labour to declare class war on Mr Cameron's privileged background. Rather, it reflects voters' suspicions that the Tories would look after their own tribe if they returned to power. "Their head is telling them they need a Conservative government but their heart is holding them back," Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, told The Times.

His interview made waves for a different reason: he appeared to commit the Tories to spend more than Labour on health. This sent some shadow cabinet "colleagues" into convulsions, since he implied they would have to find cuts to make room for higher NHS spending. Mr Lansley has been dubbed one of "the untouchables" by envious Tory frontbenchers because Mr Cameron has publicly guaranteed him the post of Health Secretary if he wins power. Mr Lansley has successfully wooed health professionals, who have become disenchanted with Labour.

Wooing the voters is bound to prove harder. Mr Cameron may declare the Tories "the party of the NHS" but that doesn't guarantee the public will believe him. The normally impressive Mr Lansley overshot the runway this week. At one level, he was stating the obvious: demands on the health service are bound to grow because of medical advances and an increasingly elderly population. But he forgot that dangerous talk can cost votes.

Mr Brown will have squirrelled away the Lansley interview in the section of his vast mental filing cabinet marked "election dividing lines". There is nothing he likes more than contrasting Labour investment in public services with "Tory cuts."

True, Mr Cameron can argue that both main parties are now committed to his policy of "sharing the proceeds of growth" because under Labour public spending will grow more slowly than the economy over the next few years. But Mr Lansley's remarks will give Labour some precious ammunition, as it can demand where the cuts to fund his "extra" health spending would fall.

His comments fuelled the Tories' big internal debate, angering right-wingers who are pressing for a more vigorous approach to tax cuts and want the party to spend less, not more. George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor and another "untouchable", is keen to burnish his tax-cutting credentials and is said to be fizzing with "blue sky" policy ideas. Mr Cameron is more cautious, arguing that his party needs to play a long game.

I suspect Mr Lansley's suggestion that the Tories would outspend Labour on health would fail the public credibility test. The opinion polls show the Tories back in the game on health. They might be trusted to match Labour's spending but increasing it might be a claim too far. It risks repeating the mistake that Mr Cameron thinks his party made before the last election: promising big tax cuts which voters did not believe. Surely, the Tories can't fight the next election on a pledge to outspend Labour on health AND to eventually reduce taxes. People don't believe they can have their cake and eat it.

Under Mr Cameron, the Tories have copied much of New Labour's 1994-97 playbook. But they seem to have missed out the page marked "discipline". As shadow Chancellor, Mr Brown's clunking fist came down hard on unauthorised spending pledges by fellow frontbenchers.

Even Mr Osborne's own plans require some refinement. He has yet to say how he will fund the promised tax breaks for married couples. The Tories' "green taxes" are also in doubt. Mr Osborne admitted this week that the party would have to offer carrots as well as sticks – the approach Mr Brown has adopted on environmental taxes all along.

The Tories are also making unforced errors. They should never have described visits to the Auschwitz death camp as a "gimmick". Their hopes that Northern Rock would be "Labour's Black Wednesday" were also misplaced – and they couldn't answer the "what would you do?" question on the bank.

The Tories have made great strides but, as Mr Lansley accepted, they have not yet won the voters' hearts.

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