Steve Richards: And I thought the Tories had changed

Cameron and Osborne refuse to be authentic. What surprises me is their amateurishness
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The Independent Online

What a bunch of unprincipled amateurs the Conservative leadership is proving to be. At one stage they appeared to have learnt from their past. Now they lapse like recovering alcoholics into old routines, playing the same tricks but more desperately and with less consistency than previous leaders. At least David Cameron's predecessors announced tax cuts well in advance of an election and had time to show how so-called efficiencies would pay for them. In contrast Cameron and George Osborne pop up days before the start of the campaign with a rushed announcement on a cut in National Insurance. They make William Hague and Michael Howard seem statesmanlike in comparison.

Policies quickly made are becoming Cameron's defining theme. He announced a bank tax the weekend before last to the surprise of the shadow Cabinet. Now he has to work out the details, along with the marriage tax allowance and the rest of the incoherent, contradictory package.

The inconsistency exposes the lack of principle. The Conservatives have changed their economic policies more often than under any opposition leadership I can recall. I do not mean that the policies have evolved in a recognisable direction. That would be constructive change. They have moved from one direction to another. First we had Osborne's declaration at the Conservatives' conference in 2006 that economic stability was his priority, and not tax cuts. A year later, a tax cut was his main priority. At least the abolition of inheritance tax was to be financed by a tax on non-domiciles, which was unconvincing but more credible than "efficiency savings".

Next Osborne declared that a future Conservative government would stick with the current administration's spending levels. Cameron and Osborne were adamant they would not shift from this position whatever the pressures within their party and from their supporters in the media. They shifted halfway through the Parliament, when they proposed spending cuts at the height of the recession. At this point cutting the deficit was their priority. The duo was privately scathing of Howard's attempts to propose tax cuts through an efficiency review, arguing that, at the very least, the proposed savings were perceived as cuts in services. Now they propose a tax cut through an efficiency review.

There was always something inauthentic about their early approach to tax and spend. Both Cameron and Osborne continued to stress that they had entered politics to cut taxes, as they tried to adopt the New Labour approach in reverse. But sometimes leaders are forced to change even when the revision clashes with their instincts. Cameron and Osborne might have become authentic in spite of themselves. It has been done before. Neil Kinnock was a passionate supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament. He took on himself as well as his party when he changed policies. After an early attempt at soul-searching, evidently the Tory duo has no intention of being troubled in the same way.

The amateurishness is more surprising. They have enough money as a party to be as professional as they wish. Instead the shifts are transparent and add to the inauthentic feel, especially this latest sequence. Polls suggest the gap with Labour is narrowing. Help! Let's announce a tax cut to be financed out of efficiencies. At this rate they might as well re-publish the 2001 manifesto or the one in 2005, which Cameron wrote. Opposition is partly an art form and for a time I assumed that Cameron and Osborne were impressive artists. Now the contrivances and tricks are depressingly obvious.

From around the autumn of 2006 until the collapse of the financial markets it seemed Cameron, Osborne and their advisers were serious about preparing for government and therefore about what they said in advance. Both have thoughtful and innovative senior figures as part of the entourage. They appeared to have discovered a new way of projecting a centre-right party, one that would spend more sensibly than Labour, but would be committed still to improving public services rather than cutting taxes.

I recall attending one event on the future of public services when Michael Gove declared sincerely: "What a joy to be at a Conservative Party event when we are not talking about tax cuts." The mood at the top was apparently determined to refocus the Conservative Party's agenda, partly because it had lost three times with the old, tax-and-spend strategy.

Cameron's most senior adviser and friend, Steve Hilton, has been known to say how important it was for the party to move on from pre-election debates about tax and spending cuts. He is a "small state, big society" advocate and is not part of some wild leftward march, but has a more modern and rounded vision for a centre-right party. I have argued before that the phrase "traditional values in a modern setting" applies much more appropriately in Hilton's case than it did to Tony Blair's leadership.

But Cameron and Osborne have chosen to play their old tax-and-spend card one more time. Perhaps it will work. Voters do not pay much attention to the detail. Maybe they will only notice the headlines about a tax cut without reflecting too much on the consequences which will, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, mean further spending cuts and threaten economic recovery.

For an opposition that has changed quite so often, tonally and in policy terms, government must seem something of a nightmarish prospect, however badly it wants to win. In power, policies cannot be altered in the way that in opposition words can be unsaid. Perhaps the Conservatives could have won convincingly by arguing for tax cuts from the beginning, as David Davis did in the 2005 leadership contest. Maybe they could have won by sticking with Labour's tax-and-spend plans. Possibly they could have walked it by proposing spending cuts and insisting that tax cuts would have to wait. They might have won by calling for immediate spending and tax cuts. But to try out all four permutations is quite something.

What are we going to get next, a revival of William Hague's Tax Guarantee and a commitment to slash the deficit more quickly, or perhaps a pledge to cut petrol duties before the publication of the party's manifesto for the environment? A more nimble-footed governing party could take this confused, inexperienced Conservative leadership to the cleaners.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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