Christina Patterson: Why Tory realism's going down a treat

What people want is a roll-your-sleeves-up kind of government that knows what it's doing. And it looks as though they are getting it
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The Independent Online

Indian dance, as Krishnan Guru-Murthy pointed out in a tweet, takes ages. It took a wee while at the opening of the Commonwealth Games on Sunday afternoon, where you might at least expect it, but it also took a while at the opening of the Tory conference in Birmingham at about the same time, where you probably wouldn't.

The message in New Delhi was clear. OK, so you, with your obsession with health and safety and hygiene and deadlines, think we cocked up, but just whose economy do you think is growing at a rate of 7.4 per cent? And yours is? Ah yes, probably on the brink of a double-dip recession. The message in Birmingham was slightly less clear. Perhaps it was so that a party led by a man who once met a black man could say that they'd once seen a brown one – or was it a woman? – dancing. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the (twisty, tortuous, tricky) path ahead. Or perhaps it was a message from the party to its leader, an export from a place where capitalism is capitalism and you let enterprise flourish, and you don't worry about things like trickle-down, and you hide slums with hoardings and banners.

These are people, you can't help thinking, who think that the Indian model of capitalism is a little too kind, and that the New Labour model of capitalism is lifted straight from North Korea. They think there's a Red Ed lurking under every bed, one determined to give mansions in Chelsea to gargantuan Somali families, and to make Middle England pay for them. They think that people are rich because they work hard and poor because they don't. And they think that immigrants come to eat our swans. (They themselves prefer scones.)

It's a pantomime world, of villains and ugly sisters (but not feuding brothers) where everyone is hoping to meet Prince Charming (but not Robin Hood). It's a world in which people can get jolly cross. And so, to make sure that they hiss at the right time, and clap at the right time, you soften them up. First, you give them a bit of guff about elf and safety, making sure that you mention conkers, pancakes and toothpicks (but not the lack of regulation that leads to collapsing bridges or stadia). Next, you give them Gove, and some announcement of a bring-back-flogging academy for trainee teachers, or something like it. You'd love to chuck in bring-back-hanging too, since that would have them moaning in ecstasy, but Ken wouldn't let you, so you don't.

And then what you do is this. On Monday, you get your Chancellor, who, although he's a member of the new, new generation, looks fantastically stern and middle-aged, to tell the people at the pantomime that people whose income is over a certain threshold (a threshold which puts you in the top 10 per cent of the population) and who have children, and who have always had a payment from the state for those children, will lose that payment. They will lose it in order to pay for changes to the welfare system which are meant to be saving money, but which, it turns out, for quite a while, won't. You get him, in other words, to tell people that they are losing income to help the poor, which some people might call a kind of tax, but which you, obviously, don't.

And on Tuesday, you get your Justice Secretary to talk about swapping short jail terms for community sentences and the importance of rehabilitation. And today, you announce that you have decided not only to emulate the Swedish model of "free" schools, but also the Swedish model of social democracy. Or am I getting a bit confused?

On The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning, David Cameron looked radiant after his standard seven hours snoring peacefully away with Sam, and as relaxed as if he was going off for a nice lunch at White's and not off to face the harridans of the Tory heartlands. "What we basically need," he said, in the nice-chap-next-door tone that's nothing less than a miracle for a former Bullingdon boy, "is a system that has universal and fair elements that are part of a decent and civilised society". And the nation (or the tiny portion of it which watches such things) could only nod and mutter "fair point". A decent, civilised society run by a decent, civilised man, and one who doesn't look as though he spent his youth dreaming up masterplans in social engineering.

Ever since he stopped going round saying that he was an optimist, David Cameron has looked a lot happier. Sure, he was optimistic, but only a nutter (or perhaps an opportunist) would be optimistic about the country. What he was optimistic about was being prime minister and, like India with the Commonwealth Games, he got there in the end. He's tried a lot of things. He's having a lovely time. A bit of austerity here (well, OK, an awful lot of it), a bit of largesse there. A bit of tough love, a bit of compassion; a bit of we'll-help-you and a bit of stand-on-your-own-feet. He's mixing it all together, and serving it up with a liberal (literally liberal) sprinkling of gravitas, and finding that it's going down really rather well. Because, it turns out, people don't want another "new dawn". They don't even want to let the sunshine in, because everyone knows the weather's going to be bloody awful, so why pretend that it isn't?

What they want is a roll-your-sleeves-up, together-in-the-national-interest kind of government that looks as though it knows what it's doing and is getting on with it. They want people in charge who don't sit around discussing political theory, or the virtues of industrial action (or how many Tube workers it takes to wreck the plans of millions, to which the answer is not very many) but who get things done. They want people in charge who are sensible and brave. And it looks, in quite a few ways, as though they're getting it. It is sensible and brave to spend a lot of money simplifying welfare payments, and making sure that "work always pays". It is sensible and brave to take a benefit from people who don't need it and give it to people who do. And it is sensible and brave to say that tougher prison sentences are not the answer to crime.

Is it sensible and brave to try to eliminate a £178bn deficit in five years? George Osborne, and a lot of right-wing commentators, and right-wing economists, and a former press officer for the Cairngorms, thinks it is. So does a very big chunk of the British population. A lot of left-wing commentators think it isn't, and so do a lot of left-wing economists, but the commentators take their views from the economists, and the economists were all completely wrong about the crisis that turned the new dawn into Armageddon, so I'm not sure why anyone would ever believe a word that any of them said.

But one thing is clear. Whatever the cause – global crash or Labour profligacy –Britain is facing a very, very serious problem, and the Tories are taking it very, very seriously. The new leader of the Labour Party, on the other hand (who, since he lives in a house that's worth seven times the cost of the average home, with a partner who apparently earns 10 times the average salary, can probably afford to lose his child benefit) barely mentioned, in the jeux sans frontieres of the Labour leadership context, the serious problem that Britain is facing. When he did, in his speech to the party conference last week, he said that he was "serious" about it. People who are serious about something generally don't need to say so. It sounds rather too like a mother saying to little Jack that if he hits his brother one more time (whoops, a bad example) she'll be very, very cross.

"To govern is to choose," said David Cameron yesterday when some of the sharp-elbowed members of the 10 per cent went mad about losing their child benefit. On this, and a surprising number of other things, he's right.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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