Steve Richards: Rise of the Tory Romantics

Usually there is only a 'feel-good factor' when the economy is doing well enough to make the electorate feel good about itself

Share
Related Topics

Can a government make us feel better about ourselves? Even the question will make some voters feel miserable. "Of course not" is likely to be the instinctive response, not least at a time of economic gloom and when an anti-politics mood is deeply entrenched.

Yet the future prospects for the Conservative wing of the Coalition hinge on generating at least a whiff of optimism. As I wrote on Tuesday, senior ministers from both parties made a tactical error in exaggerating the scale of our economic crisis in order to justify their programme of spending cuts. They made us fearful. Heading for the shops to spend some money was not an obvious response. Here is proof at least that a government has the power to make us feel pessimistic.

In their mood-generating ambitions ministers leap from one extreme to another. George Osborne greeted this week's puny growth figures almost with triumph, as if we had moved from bust to boom with the wave of his austere wand. This misjudged tone highlights how difficult it can be for ministers to sound upbeat when darkness has settled. One of Osborne's predecessors, Norman Lamont, never got over his claim that he could detect the "green shoots" of economic recovery. Lamont was entirely right in his detection, but we were not in the mood for such an upbeat assessment. Usually there is only a "feel-good factor" when the economy is performing well, or at least well enough to make a significant proportion of the electorate feel good about themselves.

Still, demand will not rise until consumers sense that they can spend with a degree of confidence. Such confidence arises from optimism about the economic future. The economic case for generating some happiness is obvious. The political dimension is at least as important for a Conservative Party that has not won an overall majority at an election since 1992.

In relation to economic policy, David Cameron, Osborne and various senior advisers are as dry as their various Conservative predecessors, including those that lost three elections in a row after 1997. As far as they are all concerned, the key is tax cuts at some point, lighter regulation and, of course, the deficit reduction package. Such an economic prescription is fully supported by those close to Cameron whom I have described before as the Tory Romantics. They include the likes of Steve Hilton and Rohan Silva in Number 10 and, to some extent, Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude in the Cabinet Office. But although they dance to economic tunes composed by John Redwood, they are in politics for reasons beyond reducing the deficit. They like more lively tunes, too, and rock around the clock to realise their wider vision, one that redistributes power from the centre to local institutions and individuals.

In some respects the Romantics have had a tough time of it over the last year. In supporting a dry-as-dust economic policy they are nowhere near romantic enough, and their more interesting vision about communities and empowerment is proving hard to implement for a thousand reasons. Nonetheless the Romantics have an ace card. They realise, as does Cameron, there is an acute danger that for all the talk about "modernisation" their party is becoming associated only with a hardline economic policy, one that it more or less advocated in the elections in which they were slaughtered. They might believe the policies are "the right thing to do", but they know that alone they will not widen the appeal of the Conservatives at the next election.

Optimism is a characteristic of the Romantics. Before arguing gloomily that Britain was as vulnerable as Greece Cameron was urging us all to let the sun shine. They support and are implementing the Wellbeing Index, an easily mocked attempt to incorporate quality of life indicators when policies are decided. Assuming the Index is applied in policy making – admittedly a big assumption – this is not silly, but a potentially radical innovation that would, at times, challenge Treasury orthodoxy as to what criteria should determine policy decisions.

Another possible initiative from the Romantics is a practical policy to protect local shops against the ambition of big companies. One of them notes that the local and extensive market in his hometown has closed because the stalls could not compete with the famous stores expanding nearby. They are considering a change in competition law to make the impact on local diversity a factor.

Above all they press on with their attempts at local empowerment. Along with the, so far, patchy public service reform, they dare to hope that the election of mayors in some big cities outside London might be an irreversibly defining policy. In these areas they move near the terrain occupied by the so-called Red Tory, Phillip Blond, and the largely misunderstood Blue Labour project. Crucially they could provide another dimension to Cameron's project beyond the economic hard grind. Governments can generate optimism, but Cameron will need to look well beyond the Treasury for some light. Oddly, in the darkness, the Tory Romantics might come to matter more.





s.richards@independent.co.uk;

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence