Bruce Anderson: Economic gloom may be bad for Labour. But it's not necessarily good for the Tories either

It was assumed a Cameron government could take the economy for granted. Not so
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The Independent Online

This is not politics. It is is vivisection. Unable to resist blundering into unforced errors, Gordon Brown cannot decide whether he is Marie Antoinette or Heathcliff. "Dithering heights'' might become the defining phase of his premiership. Cloth-eared, incapable of using words to appeal to human beings, Mr Brown has lost contact with social reality and with common sense. Events may have turned malign, but this PM has his own unique methods of making them seem even worse.

The malignity of events is giving the Tories pause. Bad economic news is leading to a reassessment. This week, as part of that process, David Cameron will be concentrating on the economy. Three years ago, Mr Cameron and his advisers were no wiser than most of the world's senior bankers. As the Tories shared the assumption that the economy would continue to thrive, it seemed easy to talk about sharing the proceeds of growth. In one of the longest periods of economic beneficence for many decades, everyone forgot that there is nothing so terrifying as the sound of crashing paper.

We have now been reminded of that: reminded, also, that economics is not an exact science and is still in its infancy. We are all monetarists now. Everyone agrees that inflation is caused by excess monetary growth. Yet all modern economies depend on credit: none more so than the United States. How can we ensure that the growth of credit does not effervesce out of control, leading to excessive asset prices and unpayable debts? How, once that happens, can an economy which still depends on credit be restored to stability without a long recession as successive layers of credit-based enterprises and credit-hocked individuals implode? How long will the bad times last?

A few weeks ago, at least in private, some British Conservatives were ready to believe that once again, they would be lucky and Gordon Brown unlucky. It seemed possible that the downturn would last for 18 months to two years and that the recovery might be under way by the next election. Even so, the electorate would be readier to blame Gordon Brown than to admire the green shoots. As in 1997, most voters would believe that the recovery began with the change of government.

Although this might still happen, I detect an enhanced pessimism among economic commentators. It may all hang on how many more major banks slide into crisis, and there is another factor: China. There has been a blithe assumption that whatever happened to the US, China would still be a motor of world growth. But is that necessarily so?

The Chinese authorities admit to 10 per cent inflation. Some observers think that the true figure could be nearer 20. There is pressure on food prices, in a country where hundreds of millions of people still live at subsistence levels. In recent years, the Chinese populace has forgotten how to starve quietly and has learned how to complain about its government – while the government has learned how to fear its people. China's rulers recognise that their position depends on prosperity. They will do what they can to maintain high growth. What happens if they fail?

If the Chinese economy cooled, the heat would come out of the oil price, but that might be scant compensation. Social unrest in China; a panicky, truculent government making belligerent noises about Taiwan; a sharp decline in world demand – none of that is impossible. We have all become dependent on China without thinking through the difficulties of relying on such an unpredictable partner.

So what are the domestic political consequences of all this? It is certainly bad news for Mr Brown. Even if world economic conditions are to blame, governments almost always get the blame, especially when their leader is so politically inarticulate as Gordon Brown – even more especially when the voters have stopped listening and are merely exasperated by the excuses. But wise Tories, determined to avoid complacency, should still entertain doubts.

One of them concerns body language. If Gordon Brown could somehow evade responsibility for the economy's problems, he would have the ideal political demeanour for gloomy circumstances. Some men carry umbrellas; this one carries a rain cloud.

David Cameron is different. If asked to describe himself, he will start by saying that he believes in half-full, not half-empty. Mr Cameron is aware of the bleaker aspects of the human condition. But he has an equable temperament, a cheerful disposition and an unlined face. Though there is plenty of steel in his character, he smiles easily. There is a danger that this might irritate some voters who see little to smile about either in their own lives or in the state of the nation, and who do not see through to the steel.

There is also a strategic problem. The assumption was that a Cameron government would be able to take the economy for granted while concentrating on the social agenda. No one is talking like that anymore. The next government could inherit a broken economy as well as a broken society.

In one respect, this could simplify Mr Cameron's task. Until recently, some Tory commentators and MPs were demanding tax cuts now, irrespective of the economic situation. In the last few weeks, those characters have gone silent. Nowadays, hardly anyone would disagree if Mr Cameron argued that it would be absurd to make any commitment on tax before examining the books and computing the extent of the Brown mess.

Economic dégringolade could offer Mr Cameron an opportunity to adjust another controversial position. Up to now, the Cameroons have declared that for the first couple of years, they would match Labour's spending plans. This was unpopular with some Tories, who did not see why their party should honour a profligate government's post-dated cheques. But it may now be possible for the Tory leadership to modify its stance. Committed to world-class standards in health and education plus significant improvements in defence and policing, Mr Cameron and his team could also insist that the government must make economies, especially in view of the world-class standards of waste which this lot have delivered.

But there is also a risk that a fractured economy could overshadow at least the first half of the next Parliament. The Cameroons had assumed that even if they did not promise tax cuts, they would discover some fiscal latitude when they arrived in power. That now seems over-optimistic. Without going as far as blood, toil, tears and sweat, Mr Cameron will have to row back on the sunlit uplits and stress the grim reality of the uphill slog. He will also have to ensure that the blame for the economic difficulties is fixed firmly on the outgoing government.

It is almost the recess, and the Labour Party cannot wait. August is usually good for governments. There is no Parliament, less political news and the hope of decent weather to improve the voters' mood. That said, few Labour MPs question Gordon Brown's ability to find the thorns on every rose-bush. They never had much of a summer at Wuthering Heights.