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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cabinet Maker / Joiner

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This bespoke furniture and inte...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic and Motion Designer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you get a buzz from thinking up new ideas a...

Recruitment Genius: Media Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£14500 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest  

Even when refugees do make it to British soil, they are treated appallingly

Maya Goodfellow
 

Daily catch-up: immigration past and present, in Europe and in America

John Rentoul
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones