John Rentoul: Truth is, spotting a lie is pointless

Voters are more moved by the words 'elderly' and 'winter fuel' than by accurate memories of the election campaign

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It is never a good idea to call someone a liar, in politics or any other field of human endeavour.

It was a bad idea for David Cameron to accuse Labour of "lies" during the election campaign, although at the time it was not obvious why. Now it is. "You are getting letters from the Labour Party that say the Conservatives would cut the winter fuel allowance, would cut the free bus travel, would cut the free TV licence," Cameron said on 23 March. "These statements by Labour are quite simply lies."

It now turns out that they were merely forecasts. Last week, government officials confirmed that the winter fuel payment, at least, is under review. So it should be. It is an expensive benefit that goes to a lot of people who do not think that they need it, and does nothing to encourage people to save energy. But it is now going to be hard to change it, because Cameron's words are being thrown back at him.

Accusing your opponents of lies is always a sign of weakness. It did Michael Howard no good in the 2005 election campaign. A normally fastidious and decent politician, despite his public image as a hard-faced rightwinger, he was persuaded to call Tony Blair a liar in a desperate attempt to turn the campaign round. He unveiled a poster that said: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election." It went down badly in polls and was quickly dropped, but not before Howard had to explain in interviews why he had voted for military action in Iraq – and, indeed, why he would still have done so if the House of Commons motion had been worded differently.

Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign never recovered from telling George Bush Snr to "stop lying about my record" after losing the New Hampshire primary. It was a flash of gracelessness under pressure that defined Dole, unfairly, as unsuited to high office. It mattered much less what Bush had said about his record than how Dole had responded to it.

In Cameron's case, he did at least go on to win, after a fashion. But we can now see that his recourse to the lexicon of words that are forbidden in the House of Commons was a mark of defensiveness. Of course, the Labour leaflets and direct mail accusing the Conservatives of intending to cut benefits for the elderly were cynical in the extreme. Gordon Brown is, as Peter Mandelson said Tony Blair said, like a mafioso in the way that he does politics. He ran the 1997 election campaign, after all, which everyone misremembers as one long dawning of golden hope with added milk and honey, but which featured a tawdry Labour allegation that the Conservatives wanted to scrap the state pension. I think John Major might even have used the "lie" word about that, too, not that it made much difference that time.

Looking back, Cameron was running scared during the election campaign. The extent of Labour's intellectual dominance was cunningly disguised by Brown's weakness as a campaigner, and by the Labour Party's crisis of self-confidence. But the Conservative leader did not dare challenge what I call the Wenceslas Response. Cameron knew that the mere word association of "elderly" and "winter fuel" provokes a public reaction so powerful that he could not stand against it, certainly not in the middle of an election campaign. No doubt he also felt indignant, because at that stage he had not decided which benefits might have to be cut. All he had decided was that it would be quite a clever move with his own party to put Iain Duncan Smith in charge of welfare reform. Thus "lies" was an over-reaction, and last week Cameron's words came back to bite him.

You can see how it would have happened. The polling would have shown that the Labour attacks were gaining traction. The story of the campaign was that the Tory brand had not been detoxified enough. At a fundamental level, the Tories were still the uncaring party of cuts of 1980s folk memory. And the Labour brand of jobs, the NHS, Clement Attlee and All That had proved remarkably strong. Cameron clearly felt that something powerful and emphatic was needed to cut through and push back against the Labour scare campaign.

The honest response would have been to say that the Tories would not take away benefits upon which people rely, but would have to look at some of those going to the better-off. Of course, there is always a tension in welfare reform between incentives to work and save, on the one hand, and, on the other, restricting benefits to "the people who really need them".

Welfare reform was always going to be nearly impossible at a time of fiscal stringency, because in practice it costs money in the short term to get people into work in order to save public money in the long term. That was one of New Labour's great missed opportunities during the long boom years.

After Cameron had locked himself in by condemning Labour "lies", he was presented with the opportunity he could have taken. On television, a retired police officer said he had given his winter fuel payment to Unicef's clean water campaign for Africa, and demanded to know why he should receive it. But it was too late, and the Wenceslas Response too powerful to fight.

So the "lies" gambit was a deliberate tactic, intended to close down an issue during the election campaign, knowing that it might cause a problem in government. Now it has.

The first really big argument in the coalition was not between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, but between Duncan Smith and George Osborne. The Work and Pensions Secretary knows that he has to spend money to get people into work to cut the benefits bill. But the Chancellor will let him spend money only if he saves it in his own department. Hence the need to look again at cuts that were denounced only weeks ago as Labour lies.

The great welfare state reform is hobbled before it even begins. Again.

John Rentoul blogs at www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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